Convention center gets new push Backers stress tangible benefits


Supporters of the proposed $150 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center have changed their tune this year, and the General Assembly seems much more inclined to dance to this one.

Instead of stressing the benefits the project would have for Baltimore or the state as a whole, backers are pointing to the 200 tons of chicken that downtown hotels buy from the Eastern Shore, the millions of dollars of produce and seafood they buy from Jessup and the thousands they spend on linen service provided by a Prince George's County company.

The new theme is a break from previous years, when pro-expansion officials relied heavily on bloodless revenue projections and my-eyes-glaze-over economic impact studies to make the case that the Convention Center must expand or lose lucrative gatherings to cities with larger facilities.

This year the proponents are trying to deliver their message in a nuts-and-bolts political language legislators understand well: letters, calls and testimony from executives in their own districts, telling them how much the convention business means to them and how many jobs could be affected if Baltimore's convention business declines.

The campaign is obviously orchestrated, but legislators said it could be more persuasive than past efforts. Partly as a result, a project that once looked dead on arrival in Annapolis is now given a fighting chance of approval.

The new strategy is one that was largely suggested by the legislators themselves, according to Wayne Chappell, executive director of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. He said expansion advocates began taking the new approach with legislators "after we heard the third or fourth one say, 'I like the project but I'm afraid I'll be thrown out of office.'"

Mr. Chappell said officials from the convention bureau and the Maryland Stadium Authority got together with leaders of the downtown hotel industry last fall and decided on a strategy to "educate" legislators and their constituents on the economic "ripple effect" Baltimore convention business has on the rest of the state.

Six large downtown hotels drew up lists of their top Maryland vendors, and the convention bureau boiled it down to a master list that was given to legislators. A reader can find such tidbits as the $22,163 spent by the hotels at Bel Air Computers in Harford County or the $1.18 million taken in by the Smelkinson Sysco food services company in Howard County.

This emphasis on vendors will be on display again tonight as several from around the state testify before the Senate Budget and TaxationCommittee in favor of the expansion.

The effort has been bolstered by a radio and newspaper advertising campaign that turns singing Eastern Shore chickens into a symbol of the far-flung economic effects of Baltimore's convention business.

Downtown hotel managers have been writing and calling vendors urging them to weigh in on the side of the expansion.

At the behest of some of his Baltimore customers, Henry Kater, general manager of the Bakery de France in Rockville, wrote to Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, to support the project. He told the senator "a significant part" of his company's revenues come from Baltimore restaurants and hotels that cater to convention-goers.

It's doubtful whether his appeals will melt the icy skepticism of Mr. Levitan, the Budget and Taxation chairman who is still rankled by the Baltimore City delegation's support of a measure in last year's special session that cost Montgomery County millions of dollars in state aid.

But some other legislators see merit in the approach.

"It's effective, there's no question about it, especially from the perspective of the rural legislators who are concerned about jobs in their districts," said Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington.

Democratic Senator Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore, thinks the strategy of emphasizing the vendors will help give some legislators the political cover they need to cast a pro-Baltimore vote.

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