State board approves land deal for College Park hotel

Over objections about the fairness of the process, the state Board of Public Works approved a land deal Wednesday that would allow a developer to build a luxury hotel and conference center at the University of Maryland, College Park.

The university envisions a $115 million hotel to attract Big 10 conference attendees for a 3-acre tract across Route 1 from the main gates of campus, a long-held goal after other plans for that area failed. The university selected developer David Hillman of Southern Management Corp., which manages numerous apartment complexes in Baltimore and the Washington area.

John Boardman, who represents a Washington-based hotel workers union that wants to organize the hotel's employees, raised concerns about how Southern Management was selected as the developer, arguing that the university had abandoned typical competitive bidding procedures.

But UMCP President Wallace D. Loh told the Board of Public Works that the state university system was exempt from the state's procurement laws for real estate transactions and so Boardman's objections did not apply. The Board of Public Works legal staff agreed with Loh.

Loh said Hillman told him in private that he wanted to build the hotel because he wanted to be a part of a "legacy project for the flagship institution" and that Hillman would not be concerned if he did not turn a profit. Hillman could not be reached for comment.

"I have talked to so many developers, none of them have ever said that to me," Loh told the Board of Public Works. "So if this is a sweetheart deal, it's a sweetheart deal for the university and the state."

The Board of Public Works is made up of Gov. Martin O'Malley, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. They unanimously voted to declare the state-held land where the hotel will be built as surplus, allowing the university to sell the land to its fundraising arm, the College Park Foundation, which will oversee the hotel. The development still needs other approvals and will come before the board again in 45 days.

The vote was unanimous and Kopp thanked Boardman for bringing the issue to their attention, but she said Loh, College Park Mayor Andy Fellows and Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III had addressed the concerns sufficiently.

Among other concerns, Boardman said that when the university initially issued a request for developers to submit proposals in April, the plan was for a different site on the other side of Route 1, adjacent to the historic Rossborough Inn. He argued that the university abandoned its initial bidding process to enter into sole-source negotiations with Hillman and that it was unfair to the other bidders.

"We want to know why the university abandoned their transparent process midstream," Boardman said.

Boardman also questioned why the university was seeking to sell the land to the foundation, which he said would place details of the development outside of the public eye. Hillman's wife, Suzanne Hillman, also serves on the board of the College Park Foundation.

Loh said that Suzanne Hillman had nothing to do with the hotel plans and that the deal was a good one for the university because David Hillman said he would foot the bill for the hotel without needing financing or any financial assistance from the university. He also offered the board a cautionary tale about another university that built a hotel without a private developer, but could not turn a profit and was now converting the hotel into classroom space.

"I think it's extremely unlikely, given Mr. Hillman's record, that this will not succeed," Franchot said.

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