Convention Center funds in legislative limbo


Maryland House and Senate panels couldn't agree yesterday on whether to release money to design the proposed expansion of Baltimore's Convention Center, so the project remains in legislative limbo.

The two subcommittees, however, did agree to release $1.5 million to design a bioprocessing center for the

Baltimore area. The facility would provide lab space for small biotechnology companies that want to apply for federal approval for their products. A decision on whether to provide funds to build the estimated $23 million facility awaits the next legislative session.

The votes to release the money came after a passionate appeal from several state officials, including Gov.William Donald Schaefer. He asked the lawmakers to stop "hammering away" at the lack of private-sector funding for the project, which supporters believe will be an important part of the campaign to turn Baltimore into a mecca for the "life sciences" industries.

At the same joint hearing in Baltimore, a House Appropriations subcommittee voted to release the $850,000 the General Assembly tentatively appropriated in April for the Convention Center expansion. But a panel of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee refused to let the money go until questions were answered about whether neighboring county executives would support new taxes to help finance the project. Legislators also had questions about a pledge of $425,000 in designmoney from a private developer.

The decision means the Convention Center Authority cannot hire architects to begin drawing up plans for the expansion, which would nearly double the size of the downtown Baltimore facility.

Even if the money is released, lawmakers would have to decide whether to sell about $125 million in revenue bonds to pay for the bigger building. Proponents of the expansion argue that Baltimore, saddled with an outdated facility, is losing convention business to other cities.

The legislature this year agreed to provide $850,000 to design the expansion, but only if the authority could come up with an equal amount from other sources. Another requirement was that the authority consult with the governments of Baltimore and the surrounding counties when it develops a financing plan.

Baltimore City put up half the design money. On Monday, an offer for the other $425,000 came from the Parkway/Swirnow Group Ltd.

But the Senate and House committees were concerned that the developer's offer might have strings attached that would obligate the state to support another $600 million project Parkway/Swirnow wants to build near the Convention Center.

That project, which includes a proposed life sciences conference center to be built on the Camden Yards site, would entail selling Parkway/Swirnow the air rights above the Convention Center so the developer can build a 1,000-room hotel and a conference center.

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