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Baltimore’s Center of Controversy

June 2005 / Community Development / Abell Reports

Should a new “Convention Center Hotel” be built adjacent to the Convention Center? If so, who should own it? The city favors itself—is that decision the right one? Facts, figures, and questions for a deliberating community and City Council.

Daily, crowds are drawn to the attractions that ring Baltimore’s Inner Harbor: the Science Center, the Constellation, the U.S.S. Torsk, the National Aquarium, and the shopping pavilions. Among the crowds –school children from around the region, Baltimoreans themselves off for a day’s pleasure, tourists from all around the world, and conventioneers meeting in the Convention Center. With so much festivity in the Inner Harbor, so much energy at work, why do the city fathers believe that there’s something wrong with this seemingly sunny picture?

What’s missing, they argue, is a “Convention Headquarters Hotel,” built next to and physically adjoining the Baltimore Convention Center. Such a user-friendly arrangement, the argument goes, will improve the competitiveness of the “underperforming” convention center, and increase the number of conventions and conventioneers spending their time and their money in Baltimore. It is this particular hotel — at this location with the physical connection, — that’s needed, they say, to complete the picture of a buoyant and burgeoning tourism industry.

The answer to the first question (Do we need a new hotel?) raises a second: if we do, who should build it?

This challenge on the civic agenda finds Baltimore city, as represented by the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), disposed to answer both questions by concluding, first, that that it does indeed need the hotel and, second, that it will also build and own it — perhaps the largest and most unique public works project in city history.

The city proposes to build and own a 750-room full-service hotel with 62,000 square feet of meeting space, restaurants, lounges, retail space, parking and other amenities on a 4.5-acre site (Lots 6A/7A) just west of the convention center. Total development cost is estimated at $298.5 million, which includes $195 million for construction of the hotel, and $103.5 million for associated costs. The city will raise the money by selling $290.8 million in revenue bonds and using $7.7 million in interest earnings on the bond proceeds.

“The city’s choice is not between a privately financed vs. a publicly financed headquarters hotel project,” M.J. “Jay” Brodie, president of BDC, and Irene E. Van Sant, the organization’s project analysis director, wrote in May. “The choice is between a publicly financed hotel project and no hotel.”

Others counter that a privately owned hotel built with a combination of private financing and public subsidy is possible. Since 1997, BDC has received at least three proposals from private developers to build a hotel on the site.

At the end of the discourse, city residents and the City Council are confronted with two issues: Does the city need this proposed new hotel, and if so, who should build it?

To provide background to the public debate, The Abell Foundation has commissioned John B. O’Donnell to research the history of the issue and the City Council, which in the end, is charged with decision-making responsibility.