Annapolis is in a race with Montgomery County and Alexandria, Va., to capture the market for smaller conferences and trade shows shunned by the larger convention centers in Baltimore and Washington. And Annapolis' key to winning that race could be the construction of a 50,000-square-foot to 75,000-square-foot conference center -- less than a third the size of the Baltimore Convention Center -- somewhere within three miles of Church Circle.
But whether Anne Arundel County and the city could afford such a facility, and where it should go, is being left up to Arthur Anderson & Co. The national accounting firm was hired to do a feasibility study by the city and county governments and the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau.
The report, which is to recommend the three best sites for the center, is to cost $30,000 and is due Nov. 1.
Tom Negri, chairman of the joint panel that commissioned the study, said he hopes to have a final site selected by Dec. 15 if the report demonstrates that a conference center would pay for itself.
"We want to move it along briskly," said Mr. Negri, manager of the Loew's Hotel in Annapolis. "If things look good, I'd like it to see it built in three years."
City, county and business officials say the center would bring new visitors to Annapolis, filling its hotels on weekdays when they are largely vacant and creating new hotel, restaurant and maritime jobs. It also would fatten city and county coffers through the hotel-room occupancy tax and payroll taxes.
Although the visitors' industry generates $1.4 billion annually in Anne Arundel County, Mr. Negri said the occupancy rate for the county's hotels has hovered around 60 percent in recent years. "That's not good," he said.
A conference center would attract the smaller trade shows, conventions and conferences that have been turned away by the large convention centers in Baltimore and Washington but cannot find enough elbow room among the many private hotel-conference center complexes, said Rosemary Duggins, marketing director for the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corp.
"It's sort of like if you build it, they will come," Ms. Duggins said.
Although Montgomery County and Alexandria, Va., are reported to be pondering new conference centers as well, neither jurisdiction has begun feasibility studies.
An official with the Montgomery County Visitors and Conference Bureau said he expects his agency will commission a feasibility study within the next week. And a spokesman for the City of Alexandria said the City Council will appoint a task force next month with neighboring Arlington County to study the issue.
The proposed center would be able to accommodate groups of up to 5,000 people at once, or handle several small groups at the same time, said Peggy Wall, executive vice president of the Visitors and Conference Bureau.
The lack of large meeting areas in the county has posed a problem for residents as well as a challenge for businesses, Ms. Duggins said. The largest existing conference room in the county is about 10,000 square feet and can handle only about 250 people.
"We have to have some high school graduations outside the county," she said.
Arthur Andersen is looking at 17 sites, each 5 to 8 acres in size, identified by Mr. Negri's committee.
The city and county have each paid $12,000 toward the feasibility study. Businesses paid the remainder.
Michael Mallinoff, city administrator, said a conference center close to the city, or even downtown, would fit nicely within a new economic development plan being drafted.