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Hackerman offer of $500M is key to GBC initiative

Architect's rendering

A week after unveiling a $500 million pledge by 92-year-old construction magnate Willard Hackerman to build a combined arena and 500-room hotel, executives of the Greater Baltimore Committee are working to seal the deal in writing with executives at Hackerman’s Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and with his family.

The negotiations go to the heart of the viability of private financing for the arena and hotel, the linchpin of the $900 million GBC plan that includes $400 million in public financing for a convention center expansion.

Reaction to the GBC’s sweeping proposals to remake the Inner Harbor has begun to gel on paper and in the court of public opinion. Viewpoints range from gushing to skeptical on the GBC’s website.

One proposal to add a 700-foot long, 18-foot wide pedestrian foot bridge across the Inner Harbor has been enthusiastically embraced as a possible new gateway to the city.

Meanwhile, officials in the city’s tourism and convention industry are pondering the impact of a convention center expansion on booking schedules through 2019.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the GBC, said that given Hackerman’s age and the projected length of time for such an ambitious project, he is working to craft a memorandum of understanding with Hackerman and his heirs about the financing commitment. “It is something that has been given consideration,” Fry said, of Hackerman’s enormous pledge and its potential impact on his estate. “He has shared the plans with key management people at Whiting-Turner and with his family.”

Hackerman declined to comment. An aide to Hackerman said “he does not speak to the press.”

The pledge of $500 million in private capital for the project is part of a partnership outlined by Hackerman, Fry said. But Fry added that he does not know who the partners are because Hackerman has not disclosed their identities.

“Honestly, I’ve not been involved in all those discussions,” Fry said, of the investors. “As we move along, I’ll be able to tell more.”

When the plan was announced last week, Fry said Hackerman was awaiting a commitment by the state and city for a $400 million expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center — also part of the mega-development along Charles and Conway Streets.

Charles O. Monk II, chairman of the GBC board, said Thursday that he and other GBC officials had formed a committee to study financing of the complex project.

The Maryland Stadium Authority is preparing to conduct a feasibility study of the project, focusing on the economic impact such an expansion could have on the city and state.

The study, which is estimated to cost $150,000, will be paid for by the state, according to a letter from Gov. Martin O’Malley and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

The stadium authority’s board must vote on the request before it can be sent to the General Assembly. There, budget committees would have 30 days to review the request before granting approval.

The study would also examine what tax revenue the convention center, arena and hotel would generate for the city and the state. The public cost of the project could be paid for in part by state general obligation bonds.

When the 1996 expansion of the convention center opened, the center was ranked 28th largest in the U.S. in terms of exhibition and meeting space. Since then, Baltimore’s venue has dropped to the “low 70s,” Fry has said.

Washington’s 2.3 million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center will be flanked by a 1,175-room Marriott Marquis hotel with 100,000 square feet of convention and meeting space, to be opened in 2013.

Philadelphia recently opened its expanded convention center with more than 1 million square feet of meeting and convention space.

Juggling the conventions and events already on the books for the Baltimore Convention Center may be tricky when a timetable is finally set for the expansion, said Baltimore Convention Center Executive Director Peggy Daidakis.

“I think once we have an idea of what it’s going to be, when it’s going to be, then we need to look at who’s affected,” Daidakis said.

“Hopefully we’ll have a project that we can move ahead with, that will be funded, that will give us a better place in the market. That we’ll have to go through perhaps a little pain for a short period of time,” she said.

From 2015 to 2019, the convention center has 16 events scheduled. From now through 2019, 212 events are scheduled.

When the convention center expanded in 1996, several large events had to move elsewhere. The Motor Trend International Auto Show, for example, moved to the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium for a few years even after expansion was completed.

Daidakis said among the options for dealing with conventions booked during construction would be to either change the date of the event so it can be held in the west wing, or change how much space the event will need.

The convention center and Visit Baltimore — the city’s tourism agency — are still working on booking events, despite the looming plans of expansion.

Another complication, Daidakis said, is that some of the security and mechanical systems in the east wing, which will be demolished and replaced, control both sides of the convention center. Moving those systems would take time and money, she said.

In the meantime, GBC officials say they have received mostly positive responses to their plans from last week that include converting Rash Field into a “world-class waterfront park.”

The plans also include a possible water-and-light show featuring LED lights, lasers and multi-story video projections in front of the World Trade Center, Harborplace and the Maryland Science Center.

Gene Bracken, the GBC’s vice president for communications, Thursday released initial findings of an informal GBC Web poll of three potential new designs for Rash Field.

Those design options include creation of a large green space with groves of trees, beach volleyball pits, a large athletic field and moveable band shell; a raised terrace next to the science center with underground parking and a formal amphitheatre area surrounded by a pedestrian walkway and bridge that would cross over Key Highway near the American Visionary Art Museum or adding a 700-foot pedestrian walking bridge to span the width of the harbor to link Rash Field to Pier V near Harbor East.

The plan to construct a pedestrian bridge across the harbor drew the most support, with 374 of 621 respondents voting for the bridge.

Responding to another poll question, 539 out of 599 respondents said the new footbridge “would enhance the Inner Harbor experience.”