Baltimore elected officials and community leaders expressed strong reservations yesterday about the troubled past of the Florida developer proposing a Ritz-Carlton hotel, but said they still would like to see the five-star hotel built.
The developer, Stuart C. "Neil" Fisher of Palm Beach, was the subject of discussions and meetings from Annapolis to Federal Hill yesterday. The strongest statement came from state Sen. George W. Della Jr., who represents the Key Highway area where the hotel would be built. Della said he would oppose any attempts by the city or state to assist the Ritz project as long as Fisher is connected to it.
"I do not think it's appropriate for any level of the government to contribute directly or indirectly to this project," Della said. "I don't touch people like this, and I don't want to do business with people like this."
Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley was less specific. "I have grave concerns," he said, adding that he needed to learn more about the Florida developer. If Fisher continues to pursue the project, O'Malley said, "I'll have to look into these allegations further."
Not every one had a skeptical view of Fisher's involvement. State officials say they will still grant public money for harbor promenade improvements that Fisher said is vital to his building the hotel. And Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he doesn't think a developer's background should block the Ritz project.
"I was interested in the project, not the person," Schmoke said.
Fisher has been promoting a Ritz-Carlton for Key Highway since February, but until this week, few Baltimoreans knew anything of his past. A two-part series in The Sun on Sunday and yesterday revealed that he is not so much a developer as a deal maker, whose record includes multiple bankruptcies, business associates with criminal convictions, and an unpaid judgment for fraud in a Maryland land deal.
Over the past 15 years, Fisher has repeatedly proposed grand hotel and waterfront projects such as the South Baltimore Ritz-Carlton, but he never completed one.
Fisher, who has called his past "irrelevant" to the Baltimore Ritz-Carlton project, said last week he would no longer talk to The Sun. He and Ritz-Carlton officials did not return phone calls yesterday.
Better background checks
Yesterday, both Della and 1st District City Councilwoman Lois Garey said Fisher's record demonstrates the need for more consistent, thorough and public background checks of developers proposing high-profile projects. City and state officials say they never saw a resume from Fisher, and residents' groups never obtained so much as a business card.
Fisher has wavered publicly about whether the Ritz-Carlton would require some kind of tax or financial incentive. Last week, he wrote in a letter to media outlets that "no public monies or subsidies will go to fund" the Ritz. But in other interviews, he said he needs a state enterprise zone or Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement to make the project go.
Glendening promises funding
Fisher's contract to buy the proposed hotel site requires HarborView, the property's owner, to deliver the land with $27 million in harbor improvements that may be borne by taxpayers.
A spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday that Fisher's involvement in the Ritz-Carlton project would not halt state officials from providing public money to the bulkheading project.
"This [bulkheading] deal isn't about Neil Fisher," said Glendening spokesman Mike Morrill. "He doesn't have any factor in the decision that gets made. Either Neil is going to overcome the obstacles he's facing, or not. And either way it's irrelevant to the state with regard to the bulkheading issue."
Morrill stressed that any taxpayer money spent on bulkheading and promenade improvements would be for the harbor area as a whole and is not considered earmarked for the Ritz-Carlton site.
"What the governor is interested in seeing is first-class economic development in that corridor, but it's never been dependent on a specific project," Morrill said. "What the governor agreed to with the mayor was a project that was not dependent on the private development behind it."
He added, "If Neil puts together the deal and it all works out, great."
Scrutiny played down
Schmoke, who leaves office next month, said yesterday through his chief spokesman that he didn't believe it is necessary to put developers through scrutiny.
"His view of developers is that they are rarely the people you are going to deal with in the long run," said Schmoke spokesman Clinton R. Coleman. "They're the people in the project until it's built and then they're out of the picture. Then you deal with managers."
Coleman said project managers are more likely to have background checks done on them because "that gives you a better picture of whether the project is on sound financial footing. Ultimately, the manager is who makes the project stand out, much more than who develops it."
Despite the possibility that public money might be spent, M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the quasi-public city economic development arm Baltimore Development Corporation, said his organization did not check Fisher's background because he never formally submitted a request for assistance.
O'Malley and Brodie pledged that if Fisher asks for funds, the BDC will examine the request skeptically. "We understand there are a lot of serious questions here," Brodie said.
But Della, Garey and community leaders said BDC should have checked Fisher's past earlier, "This is information we should know. People run a credit check on me before I buy a cell phone," Garey said. Her 1st District colleague, Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., added: "I think the city has to look at it once again. I'm not comfortable with what I read."
Della criticized HarborView president Richard Swirnow, who says he investigated Fisher's past himself, for failing to tell the community what he knew. Swirnow did not return phone calls.
"I think the background of the developer is an important fact to know from Day One when you're talking about a proposal of the size and profile of the Ritz-Carlton," Della said.
In Federal Hill, where Fisher has kept a steady presence for most of the year, the revelations of his past were a constant topic from Cross Street Market to Key Highway. "It would be fine with me for a Ritz-Carlton to go up there, but not with Neil Fisher as developer," said Mary Louise Franz, 73, a social worker. "I feel he wasn't being honest with us."
The Federal Hill Neighborhood Association has supported the Ritz-Carlton proposal ever since Fisher appeared to yield last month to community demands to reduce the project's height. But last night, association board members met at a neighborhood restaurant and said they would seek O'Malley's backing in challenging the hotel, its design, and the trustworthiness of its developer.
"I don't know how you can trust Fisher," said Dick Leitch, the association's president-elect, "so I don't know how you can trust the Ritz-Carlton."