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Convention center review slow to start


More than three months after Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association officials promised a "top-to-bottom" review of its operation, the group has yet to put that project out to bid.

"We're running a little behind in our work due to the volunteer nature of the board and the impact of summer vacations and other personal commitments," Clarence T. Bishop, chairman of the BACVA board, said.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley had called in June for a review to be completed by "mid-fall" after an examination by The Sun found that a $151 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center had failed to attract projected conventions and attendance.

Yesterday the mayor said he was not bothered by the delay. "I'm not concerned about the pace at which it's moving," O'Malley said. "I'm sure they'll get it done. I think it's something that Clarence wanted to do from the moment he got there."

O'Malley, who appoints the BACVA board, said he has been told that the work will be completed by the end of November. The request for bids is expected to go out as soon as Friday, or by early next week.

"It's the steering committee's goal to have a contract awarded in about three weeks after the RFP [request for proposal] is issued," Bishop said in a statement.

In a letter dated June 19, O'Malley asked that the review include an audit of the number of total hotel rooms rented for conventions. He also wanted a thorough analysis of BACVA's contribution to Convention Center bookings since the center's expansion, compared with projections from the 1993 feasibility study conducted by Economics Research Associates Inc. He asked, too, for a review of BACVA's marketing expenditures and the methods used to attract target conventions.

The mayor's request came after The Sun reported that instead of the 50 conventions a year projected by the 1993 feasibility study, the city has attracted a high of 41 conventions in 1998 and a low of 26 two years ago.

In addition, combined attendance from trade shows and conventions - the two most critical areas - has never reached the 330,000 projected. Attendance has ranged from a low of 192,625 three years ago to a peak of 234,394 last fiscal year, 1,000 more than a decade earlier.

Bishop declined to provide details on the planned review.

"This isn't the appropriate time in the BACVA board's work for media and press interviews," Bishop said through a spokeswoman.

Bishop's timetable is ambitious, but feasible, according to experts.

Once a bid is put on the streets, it typically takes four to 10 weeks until a consultant can start work, said Ford C. Frick, managing director at BBC Research & Consulting Inc. in Denver, Colo. Another consultant put the turnaround time between two and three months.

But Baltimore might be able to meet its goal if officials ask for standardized information, send bids out to pre-qualified firms, allow two weeks to respond and then make a decision within 24 hours, Frick said.

"It's within the bounds of reason," he said.

Depending on the complexity of the review, consultants could then spend anywhere from one to three months doing their assessment, Frick said.

"You can accelerate a program by hiring a large firm that can assemble a team, throwing money at it and then not having them check in until the very end," Frick said. "Sometimes a process that takes longer can be a richer process, without necessarily being more expensive."

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