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Amid Baltimore’s renewed shutdown, millions spent to entice visitors back to city questioned by spending board

Hindsight is 20/20, and as Baltimore’s spending board learned Wednesday that axiom is especially true in 2020.

In October, flush with funds from the federal stimulus program, city officials allocated $5 million to Visit Baltimore, the majority of which was pumped into a marketing campaign to welcome tourists back to the city with open arms.

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Then, as the advertisements began to air, a resurgence of COVID-19 all but shuttered the city again.

On Wednesday, city officials approved the use of those funds — just $700,000 of which hasn’t been spent — but not without expressing some buyer’s remorse.

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“I wanted to make it as explicit as possible that this is the city following though on a commitment made months ago under different circumstances,” said Bill Henry, the city’s comptroller and one of five members of the Board of Estimates. “If we were making that decision today, it might be a different decision, We know things now that we didn’t know then.”

Al Hutchinson, President and CEO of the city’s nonprofit marketing group, offered an accounting of the spending. About $500,000 was used to develop and produce a slate of advertisements for television, print, radio and billboards, he said. Another $35,000 was spent to produce a video about safety protocols when visiting the Baltimore Convention Center. Safety while traveling was a major focus of the campaign, Hutchinson explained.

Several million dollars went to distributing those ads, and another $65,000 was spent to spread visitors guides up and down the east coast, encouraging visitors, perhaps weary of flying during the pandemic, to take a road trip to Baltimore.

The window to turn around the campaign was tight, Hutchinson said. At the time, CARES Act money needed to be spent by Dec. 30. And the planning was done in October, when the city was in Phase 2 of its reopening plan and most businesses were operating at 50% capacity.

“People were traveling in October,” he said. “Baltimore was still open. Our focus was on supporting small businesses that were struggling and getting clobbered during that period of time.”

“We didn’t ask for the money but we were grateful to receive it,” Hutchinson added.

Henry, who took office this month and is new to the spending board, questioned whose idea the allocation was. Hutchinson said the idea began with former Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.

“So somebody, not you, made a decision that a better use for federal CARES money for helping small businesses in Baltimore ... would be to spend the money buying commercials to encourage people to come support small businesses, as opposed to taking those same millions of dollars and directly helping the small businesses themselves?” Henry asked.

Dana Moore, the city’s acting solicitor and a fellow board member, interjected.

“It’s Dec. 23, 2020, and we are looking in the rearview mirror at decisions made in October 2020, when there was a very different climate and a very different sense of urgency to those decisions,” she said.

Moore, who became the city’s acting solicitor under Young’s administration, said decisions about how to spend stimulus money had to be made quickly so the money would not be “clawed back” from the city.

“It wasn’t an analysis of let’s do this because it’s better than doing that. It’s lets do all these things that are going to actually help Baltimore,” she said. “We can very easily try to reverse engineer all the decisions that were made in October, but I would just remind everyone we certainly had a different administration.”

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Council President Nick Mosby, who took office this month and joined the board, noted that millions of dollars were given directly to small businesses during the same time period. The funding that went to Visit Baltimore wasn’t taken away from other things, he said.

Henry reiterated that the spending was a prior commitment.

“While current evidence may make that look questionable in retrospect, at the time, it was its own decision and it was made,” Henry said. “At this point now, we don’t really have much choice but to keep our commitment to Visit Baltimore, because they’ve already spent the money.”

Hutchinson noted that the ads have since been pulled back in an attempt to mirror city restrictions. Billboard messaging that was welcoming residents to the city now asks city residents to support restaurants with carryout and delivery orders, he said.

Mayor Brandon Scott said what’s done is done. He and his fellow board members voted unanimously in favor of the spending.

“We cannot go back on these decisions. We have to honor our word,” he said. “We will do a better job of consistently monitoring where we are in our situation with COVID.”

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