Convention center site study on agenda


City Council members, divided over a proposed multimillion-dollar conference center in Annapolis, will debate paying $140,000 for a site review during a hearing at 7 p.m. tonight.

The Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau wants the money to study an 11.2-acre parcel at West Street and Taylor Avenue.

A $30,000 feasibility study, paid for by Annapolis, the county and the visitors bureau, was conducted two years ago. The tourism group contends it needs the extra money to study the impact of development on the environment, transportation and the local economy.

Discussion of the conference center died last year, when the project's supporters failed to get money from the Maryland legislature.

Some aldermen say they are eager to reopen the debate.

"One reason we need the conference center is for Monday through Thursday visitors," said Alderman Shep Tullier, a Ward 4 Democrat. "These visitors are perhaps more sophisticated than the T-shirt, ice cream, hot dog, French fry crowd."

Other City Council members wonder why they are debating this issue again.

"We have never settled the first question, which is whether or not Annapolis wants a conference center," said Alderman Louise Hammond, a Ward 1 Democrat.

Conference center supporters bill the project as the ideal way to make Annapolis attractive to the organizers of some of the 40 trade shows in the state each year. Meetings and conventions would yield $400,000 a year in hotel room taxes alone, they contend.

Residents and other local critics say the region has too many conference centers and that that would prevent the project from recovering the taxpayers' investment. The only group to benefit, they say, would be Annapolis restaurants and hotels.

Ms. Hammond and other aldermen believe that if another study is necessary, the city's hospitality industry should pay for it.

"Why hasn't any hotel come in here and jumped to invest in this project?" she asked.

Kristin Witzenburg, director of marketing for the visitors bureau, acknowledged that local hotels are not lining up to promise financial support, but she said they don't stand to gain as much from another study as the city does.

"This is not solely for the conference center so that we can break ground at the end of the study," Ms. Witzenburg said.

Nevertheless, some residents say taxpayers' money should not be used to promote the conference center.

"Public money should not be given to private lobbies," said Cynthia L. Eckard. "I'd say this is a weak attempt to breathe life into a flawed project that has no mandate."

The visitors bureau asked for the money at a City Council Finance Committee hearing last month after meeting privately with Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins. The committee postponed action until tonight's public hearing.

The West Street property, known as the Mencke site, was not the only site considered for the project. A tract on Jennifer Road owned by the Anne Arundel Medical Center also was proposed by the tourism group.

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