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Tourism leaders lament loss of convention head


As Wayne C. Chappell prepares to leave his job after 17 years as convention director, downtown's tourism leaders fear he will be hard to replace because the city spends so little to lure conventioneers.

"We will not find anybody of Wayne's caliber if the budget continues to go south," said Christopher C. Hartman, board secretary of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. Mr. Chappell has directed the group since 1978 -- the year before the Convention Center opened.

Nick Brown, the National Aquarium's executive director emeritus, described Mr. Chappell as "one of the giants of the convention promotion business." The search for a replacement will be hurt if any prospective candidate "is not convinced that the environment is pro-tourism," Mr. Brown said.

The nonprofit convention bureau gets most of its $3 million budget from city tax dollars. In the coming fiscal year, the Schmoke administration has proposed cutting $289,000 from the city's current $2.4 million allocation.

Other cities are outspending and outpromoting Baltimore.

For example, San Antonio, Texas, spends more than $8 million on tourism and convention promotion -- including $1 million on advertising -- for its 241,000-square-foot convention center. Philadelphia, which has a 435,000-square-foot center, spends about $4 million on convention marketing alone -- and another $2 million on general tourism promotions.

And in Kansas City, Mo., where Mr. Chappell is headed, convention business is financed with a $3.8 million budget for a center that has 400,000 square feet of exhibit space.

"We were told [Wednesday] by Wayne that $2 million is not enough to run the organization," said Mr. Hartman, president of the Haragan & Hartman Ltd. public relations firm. "But we also recognize that the city has a horrific problem in terms of things they've got to cover."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said, "We had to make it clear to Mr. Chappell and his staff that the money that was available to the city years ago . . . no longer exists."

Finance director William Brown said the city is trying to boost convention business by giving the bureau a $283,000 grant to help promote the Convention Center when it is expanded to 300,000 square feet next year.

But Bruce Hoffman, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority said, "there's got to be a long-term solution because the Convention Center can be very good if we can promote it, vTC but it will be a drain if we can't."

Baltimore suffered a drop in convention bookings as business shifted to larger centers. The number of major events here fell from 105 in 1991 to 89 in the fiscal year that ended last June.

That falloff -- and the assumption that convention centers pay off economically -- was the main argument employed to convince the city and state to fund an expansion.

But the Schmoke administration's relationship with the convention bureau recently has been strained.

Earlier this year, a committee made up of the mayor's chief of staff, his two top financial officers and a lawyer from the politically-connected law firm of Shapiro and Olander met with Mr. Chappell to review the contract between the city and the bureau.

Mr. Schmoke has no control over hiring the director or appointing board members, although he has been granted two representatives on the board.

One member is Honora Freeman, said Mr. Hartman said. The mayor announced last week that she is leaving as president of the quasi-public Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development arm.

The other member is lawyer C. Edward Hitchcock, who Mr. Schmoke said likely will be leaving as director of EMPOWER BALTIMORE!, the organization recently formed to spend $100 million in federal revitalization funds.

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