Members of Baltimore's tourism industry are pressing harder for public support for advertising and new facilities, sounding a familiar refrain with new urgency as they face a downturn in visitors in the aftermath of April's rioting.
Officials are highlighting the importance of tourism to the regional economy and its role as a source of career paths for entry-level workers as they make the case for increased funding.
Baltimore is falling behind, officials said, as other cities direct more money to marketing and invest in new or improved convention centers.
"It's going to take a lot to restore perception of the city," said Sam Rogers, Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of Visit Baltimore, at a panel discussion Monday organized by the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We're up against a lot of competition."
Tourists in Baltimore spent an estimated $5.2 billion in 2014, supporting more than 82,000 jobs in the region, according to estimates by Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism and convention bureau. But the industry has been suffering from a plunge in the number of visitors that followed the riots in April.
Attendance at local attractions has declined between 10 percent and 30 percent compared to 2014, Visit Baltimore estimates. At the National Aquarium, traffic is down about 7 percent, said Margo Amelia, vice president and chief marketing officer at the aquarium.
"We are underfunded from a destination marketing standpoint in Baltimore," she said at Monday's panel. "We cannot compete. … We need money to do a positive Baltimore message."
Calls, especially for a bigger convention center and new arena, are not new.
The Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business advocacy group, has championed such projects for years, putting forward a $900 million proposal that would have combined a new, privately financed arena and hotel with an expanded convention center. But that plan lost traction after the death of construction magnate Willard Hackerman, who would have helped financed it.
Del. Curtis S. Anderson, who serves on Visit Baltimore's board and leads the city's delegation to the General Assembly, said the organization's legislative strategy is still in the works for next year, but he is scheduling meetings for legislators, including those from outside the area, to visit the city and hear the pitch.
"I think we have a sympathetic ear, more so than in past years," he said. "We notice that we've gotten a lot of support from around the state in terms of 'What do we need, how can we help you?' I think a lot of folks recognize that Baltimore City is still the main economic engine for the state of Maryland, and its tourism industry is very important."
One local proposal backed by Visit Baltimore calls for subjecting short-term Airbnb rentals to the city's 9.5 percent hotel occupancy tax, which provides the bulk of Visit Baltimore's roughly $16 million budget.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the administration expects to introduce such legislation regarding the online rental company next year. It also might include regulatory measures to ensure cleanliness and other standards for Airbnb rentals.
The goal is to "level the playing field" — placing hotels and the increasingly popular online rentals often offered by homeowners on equal footing, Visit Baltimore President and CEO Tom Noonan wrote in an email. Airbnb hosts benefit from his organization's promotional efforts, he added.
"It is in everyone's best interest that we capture this associated revenue stream because those dollars fuel important city services [that] benefit local residents; and allow us to promote Baltimore as a great travel and meetings destination — and in turn, a great Airbnb travel destination," he wrote.
Baltimore also needs a long-term investment in the convention center and arena, he added.
Economist Anirban Basu, who chairs the state's Economic Development Commission, said he plans to push for the convention center project, which would provide short-term construction jobs and help secure convention business that requires bigger venues.
Funding could come from revenue generated by the increase of the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent several years ago, he added.
"Baltimore desperately needs that project … and it would benefit all of Maryland," he said.
Basu said he has not discussed the project with Gov. Larry Hogan. Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the governor, did not directly respond to a question about whether Hogan supports the idea.
"Governor Hogan has repeatedly said that Maryland's biggest city must serve as the economic engine of our state," she said in a statement. "The administration is committed to continuing the recent growth in tourism in every part of Maryland, including Baltimore and the surrounding areas."
The Evening Sun
Karen Glenn Hood, a spokeswoman for the state Commerce Department, said it is too early to say what kind of future support the state might be willing to provide. The state already upped its contribution to city tourism efforts with a $250,000 grant to Light City, a festival being organized for March, she added.
Rawlings-Blake spokesman Howard Libit also said it is too early to say if the administration intends to increase funding for Visit Baltimore or seek state support for an expanded convention center.
"Clearly bringing back our tourism industry and growing it are priorities for the administration, but dollars aren't abstract. Dollars actually have to come from some place," he said.
Winning support for Visit Baltimore's plans is likely to remain a difficult challenge, said Joseph T. "Jody" Landers III, a former city councilman who pressed Noonan on the group's regional strategy after a presentation at the University of Baltimore last month.
Landers said he likes the idea of the potential jobs generated by a bigger convention center, but doesn't know whether he supports it, given the city's other pressing needs, such as improving schools, reducing crime, and attracting and retaining residents.
"When you get out on the street and talk to people, their perception is that there's a lot of time and investment that goes into downtown and not so much out in the neighborhoods," he said. "I think it's something that they're going to have to grapple with."