Paterakis' winning bid for hotel not about politics


John Paterakis, baker of bread, desirous builder of a great big waterfront hotel, defender of his city and himself, limps into a little meeting room at his H&S; Bakery on Fleet Street the other day and commences to vent a few careful emotions.

"Ten thousand dollars," he says, the way some of us would say 10 cents. "That's what your own newspaper people tell me. They say I've given $10,000 to Democratic politicians over the last four years."

"Have you?" he is asked.

"I don't know," he says. "You think I keep track?"

For such things, he hires people skilled in arithmetic. But the implication is clear: In the bidding for rights to build a luxury hotel near the Inner Harbor, some are claiming Paterakis got the nod because he'd financially backed this mayor over the years. Such talk pains him. He already has enough pain, with a bad knee in need of surgery, and all the years of sticking it out and paying taxes in this creaky city while corporations around him were fleeing to safe suburbia. And now the latest, these insinuations.

"Ten thousand dollars," Paterakis sneers again. "If $10,000 gets me the right to build a hotel, I could get the whole city for a million dollars."

The complaints sting. The city, hoping for the arrival of swarms of tourists for its newly expanded Convention Center, needs to put them up somewhere. Thus, three sites were contemplated, two of them closer to the Convention Center than Paterakis' big stretch of waterfront property south of Little Italy.

But Paterakis gets the nod. And, immediately, cynics claim politics. They ask: Why else go for a site so far east of the Convention Center? Why else go for commercially untested real estate? Why else give tourists such a long trek between hotel and Convention Center?

"For openers," Paterakis says, "the old News American plot" -- which is closest to the Convention Center -- "is four-tenths of a mile away. We're seven-tenths of a mile. For a tourist, who's stopping at places along the way, who's looking into shops and buying stuff, he ain't walking the whole thing in one clip anyway.

"And even if he does, the waterfront makes it seem like a short walk. If they don't want to walk, that's OK. We'll have water taxis and rubber tire trolleys, and we'll give 'em passes for them. They can go anywhere. It's part of the charm of the city they take with them."

But distance and transportation are the least of the city's important concerns. The Inner Harbor surpasses every dream of James Rouse and William Donald Schaefer, and Kurt Schmoke, too. But it isn't enough to sustain a city. There must be movement.

Paterakis' big plot of land pulls some of the harbor action east. It's a stone's throw from the Pier Six outdoor theater, which ought to be packed every warm night but instead struggles. It's a short water taxi ride to the neighborhood charms of Canton and walking distance to the more commercial pleasures of Fells Point.

Also, it gives courage to other businesses eyeing the city's undeveloped waterfront but lacking a pioneer spirit.

"A big hotel there makes their decision easier," says Michael Beatty. He's Paterakis' real estate officer. "Look, any big hotel is gonna help the city. But where does the city get the most bang for its buck? This isn't about one hotel; it's about making the waterfront into this city's miracle mile.

"The other sites" -- the old News American spot, at Lombard and South; and Pratt Street at Market Place -- "are landlocked. There's no place to build around them. Here, you've got Sylvan Learning Center already moved in, and almost 5 million square feet ready to be developed. That can't happen anywhere else."

There's another consideration. No hotel, Paterakis says, survives strictly on the Convention Center. The city expands its delights, or it stagnates. Harborplace can't continue to carry so heavy a load.

"This business about political connections," Paterakis says, returning to the subject gnawing at him. "They use that word too easily, like somebody's doing me a favor. This is a big investment, and there ain't a guarantee in the world that it's a winner, no matter who puts up that hotel. Sticking your neck out is still sticking your neck out, and that's what this is."

One more thing: Paterakis has been hoping for legalized gambling in Maryland, now being debated in the General Assembly. He says he's not optimistic about any legislative overrides of the intransigent Gov. Parris Glendening, who seems not to notice the millions of Maryland dollars being wagered in Delaware.

For the record, Delaware's slot machines posted their biggest month in February, taking in $267 million. At this rate, they're on track to do about $3 billion in business this year -- of which an estimated 25 percent to 33 percent is money bet by people from Maryland.

If somebody wants to talk about a payoff, they should start right there.

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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