Bowing to mounting opposition in Annapolis to his plan to go ahead with the heavily subsidized, $137.6 million Wyndham Hotel at Inner Harbor East, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday said a request for at least $10 million in state loans for the hotel has been withdrawn.
But as he proceeds with the hotel a mile from the expanded Baltimore Convention Center, Schmoke's move failed to assuage one of the hotel's chief critics, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, who launched the most scathing attack yet on the mayor's choice.
"I just regret that the mayor and his advisers continue to persist with this folly of trying to shove this hotel down the public's throat," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. "I think they're going to try to muscle this through over the objections of the public and certainly over the objections of the General Assembly."
Rawlings, who played a key role in approving the Baltimore Convention Center's publicly financed $151 million expansion, said the mayor's choice of baking magnate John Paterakis Sr.'s proposal over a site closer to the center directly threatened future bookings and, by extension, the convention center's long-term health.
Saying the mayor's decision "cavalierly ignores the interests of the taxpayers and their investment," Rawlings predicted that legislators would reject a city attempt to change state law to make a voter referendum for Wyndham bonds unnecessary.
And the mayor's move may cost the city dearly in next year's legislative session, Rawlings said: "I just think it will have an impact on the whole Baltimore City agenda in the General Assembly."
Rawlings' comments came just hours after Schmoke announced that the request for state loans had been withdrawn. Schmoke said the city plans to sign a contract with the Wyndham group within the next 10 days.
The mayor, through a spokesman, refused to comment on Rawlings' attack.
"The mayor says we're moving ahead with [Inner] Harbor East," said Alonza Williams, the spokesman. "The mayor would like to just move ahead."
Schmoke said he had told Paterakis that political realities compelled him to withdraw the request for state loans.
"I just said the crosswinds of politics down there [in Annapolis] will get this project caught up not in a debate about whether this site is good or not, but in all kinds of other issues about whether it should be a bargaining chip in somebody's requests for state education aid or road construction or some project," Schmoke said. "And I said you don't want to get caught up in that, particularly in '98; it's a state election year."
After the contract is signed, Schmoke said, the city would formally request proposals for the city-owned lots at Camden Yards, where Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos has proposed a $150 million Grand Hyatt. But timing is crucial, amid widespread fears that building too much too soon would glut the market and lead to a devastating decline in hotel occupancies and ensuing red ink.
Schmoke said the request for proposals would not include a ban on opening any hotel at the Camden site until 2002, as the city's economic development agency recommended last week.
But the mayor added that the Wyndham and any other hotel would have to be staggered enough to avoid overbuilding and that a time line would be included in negotiations for any hotel.
"Everybody knows there's got to be some spacing," Schmoke said. "We'll be very clear that there's got to be some spacing" between the opening of two hotels.
Schmoke declined to elaborate on a specific timetable beyond saying, "I want two hotels by 2002. I'm looking to get one by 2000 and one by 2002."
"I really think that as more people look at the facts of the project, the more comfortable they will be with it," Schmoke said.
Responding to a request for details on how the Wyndham team would offset the $10 million, Williams, the spokesman, said the mayor has yet to determine whether taxpayers or the development team would bear the cost. The Paterakis team is seeking $19.6 million in parking revenue bonds that are subject to the approval of the City Council and $17.5 million in other bonds that would have to go to voter referendum.
The city said it plans to ask the state to change the law to make the referendum unnecessary -- a prospect that has been sharply criticized by some state lawmakers.
Some business leaders, city and state lawmakers, and heads of tourist attractions say the lack of a hotel next to the convention center would continue a downward spiral in bookings and turn the taxpayer-financed, $151 million expansion of the center into a costly failure.
Schmoke said the city would prefer a hotel on the site, but would consider nonhotel proposals, including bids to buy the land, build a park and underground parking garage or build a mid-size office building.
Pub Date: 7/11/97