With the Baltimore City Council poised to consider a publicly funded convention center hotel today, a Baltimore foundation is sharply questioning the need for such a facility.
The Abell Foundation released yesterday a report urging the council to demand evidence that a convention center hotel - a project that would be among the city's all-time costliest - would jump-start Baltimore's faltering convention business.
Development and tourism officials have said that Baltimore will sink in the industry without a hotel dedicated to conventions adjacent to the downtown center.
Baltimore Development Corp., the city's development agency, is leading the push for Baltimore to issue $305 million in revenue bonds for a 752-room Hilton that the city would develop and own.
"City Council should not approve this proposal unless the O'Malley Administration offers convincing evidence that other publicly financed hotels have given a major boost to the convention centers they were supposedly built to help," the Abell report says.
"It should not be enough for the council to say, 'Others are doing it, so we should do it also,' which seems to be the BDC rationale."
The council will hold a public hearing today on nine bills that, among other things, would create a property tax district for the hotel, authorize the sale of revenue bonds to pay for it and close streets for its construction.
The hearings are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. at City Hall.
BDC President M.J. "Jay" Brodie dismissed the Abell report as "glass half-empty."
"We don't agree with the rather negative outlook that characterizes the report," Brodie said. "We've been convinced for a very long time ... that the need is absolutely there" for a convention center hotel.
Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. said yesterday that questions about the hotel, its necessity and how it should be paid for constitute "a major public policy issue."
"There are a lot of important questions that need to be addressed," said Embry, formerly a city housing commissioner and a top housing official in the administration of President Jimmy Carter. "It deserves scrutiny."
In addition to questioning the need for a hotel dedicated to convention center business, the report suggests that Baltimore officials demand more information on nearly every aspect of the project before supporting it. The suggestions include:
Asking the BDC to open its records on the hotel to the public.
Questioning developers who have proposed privately owned hotels with city subsidies.
Inviting convention center hotel experts and convention planners who have chosen other cities over Baltimore to address the council.
Asking other Baltimore hotel operators how the project might affect their business.
"Only by fully airing the issues, the differences and all the information about this proposal can the City Council get a complete picture of the rewards and risks involved in having the city build and own a hotel," concludes the report, which was written by John B. O'Donnell, a former reporter and editor for The Sun who retired last year.
If the council wishes to stick to BDC's timetable, it doesn't have the luxury of lingering over any of those questions.
Brodie said he would like the council to vote on the project at its July 11 meeting to make it possible to tap in to low interest rates and open the hotel by spring 2008.
He rejected one City Council member's attempt to form an advisory committee to consider the hotel, saying it would hopelessly delay the project.
Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who floated the advisory committee idea, said the council needs more time to take on substantive questions such as those raised in the Abell report.
"We're getting one hearing to talk about nine bills for the largest public works project in the city's history," Mitchell said.
Council President Sheila Dixon said yesterday that Brodie's wish for a July vote seemed overly ambitious. August or September would seem more likely, she said.
"I understand the urgency," she said, "but this is a major investment for the city, and there are some concerns and questions. We just can't look at this as the greatest thing since sliced pie."
Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association officials have forcefully advocated for the hotel. Ronnie Burt, the organization's vice president for convention sales and service, said yesterday that despite doubts raised in the Abell report, Baltimore needs the hotel.
Without one, he said, the city has lost about $80 million over the past three years.
"We need to position ourselves to hold on to more of our market share," Burt said.