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Compromise offers a base for building city hotel deal


AT BALTIMORE City Hall this week, Sheila Dixon stood there with her close personal friends of the moment. There were some members of city government. There were labor leaders and religious leaders. All of them gathered around the council president like a high school homeroom posing for yearbook pictures. But this was less a valedictory moment than a show of cross-cultural force, a photo op intended to show political inevitability.

They were all declaring their support for a deal combining $305 million for a convention center hotel with $59 million for some blighted city neighborhoods. The gathering was Monday morning. Everybody in the room said they felt good about reaching a compromise. By Monday afternoon, whatever compromise existed seemed lost in ongoing contentiousness as the City Council gathered for its first vote on the measure.

The hotel money managed to squeeze past its first round, 8 to 7. But the atmosphere was characterized by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell barely containing his anger about troubled neighborhoods being "held hostage" to spending on the high-end hotel. Then, Wednesday morning at the Board of Estimates, the mood worsened when Dixon and Comptroller Joan Pratt went at each other in pretty nasty tones.

So much for political inevitability; so much for feel-good compromise.

There's a lot of money at stake here, but money's only part of it. The hotel money, intended to prop up the under-performing convention center, takes Baltimore where it has never exactly been before: It would be the city's business. If it works, the city could make a bundle; if it tanks, the city takes a major financial bath.

When Monday morning's gathering broke up, I asked Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke if she liked the city getting into the hotel business in such a big way.

"It's like Shadow Government II," she said. "Do we have a city hotel corporation looming over the hill? We're putting ourselves at risk for the duration. I mean, it's hard enough to get the trash picked up. And now, the hotel business?"

Clarke's concerns are a kind of personification of the conflict, and the reason this deal transcends money. We continue to be a city struggling to believe in itself. We can't get over our booming housing market, our booming downtown construction, the millions of tourists arriving each year.

But our optimism's still full of second-guessing and suspicion. Sometimes, it's suspicion of our ability to pull ourselves out of our long municipal muck. Sometimes, it's the suspicion between the traditional haves and have-nots.

That's what brought the folks from BUILD - Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development - into the picture. In June, they marched into City Hall demanding an end to the "two Baltimores," the downtown where business development is blossoming, and neighborhoods where crime and vacant housing dominate. "You want a hotel?" the BUILD leaders asked. Not without taking care of our end first. This included some pungent words between Dixon and BUILD's clergy co-chair, Bishop Douglas Miles.

This week, though, Miles was part of that group gathered around Dixon. They're all close personal friends for the moment. Conflict? What conflict?

In fact, said Baltimore Development Corp. President M.J. "Jay" Brodie, "There shouldn't be a conflict. The city has put a lot of money into a lot of these neighborhoods. Is it wrong to find creative ways to finance them?" (At such a feel-good moment, none dare call this "trickle-down" financing.)

"You build a hotel, you create jobs, you keep the city growing," said Brodie. "Every study says this hotel will do well, it'll provide money for police, for firefighters, for teachers. We don't see it as either-or. Our projection is that 75 percent of the money that comes out of this will find its way into non-downtown neighborhoods."

Here's what's heartening about this whole contentious, grinding, sometimes-bitter process: Everybody senses there's money in the air. This isn't about people blowing town. It's about people staying here, and wanting to get their communities' fair end of the future.

The BUILD people saw all that hotel money floating around, and saw a wedge for money of their own. The downtown people see all these tourists coming, and all those who'd like to come if they had better hotel accommodations, and see their own opening. The details, they'll work out. Will everybody be happy? No. But that's called compromise.

That's why Dixon's group photo op was significant. It had politicians and labor people and religious leaders and community folks. They have not always gotten along so well. But they've found workable common ground here, whatever the contentiousness that led to it.

Afterwards, Dixon sat in a hallway with Ernie Greco, president of the Baltimore Metropolitan AFL-CIO, and Ron DeJulius, business manager for Operating Engineers Local 37.

"Now you see what we go through," Dixon said, sighing.

"That's why they pay you the big bucks," Greco said, laughing.

In fact, there are very big bucks at stake here. But they're big bucks reflecting a city that's trying to believe in itself, trying to rebuild broken parts of itself. Compromise says we can find reasonable amounts here for everybody.

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