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C. Fraser Smith: Hackerman to city: Dare to be great

Much has been made of Willard Hackerman’s offer to put a lot of money into the evolution of Baltimore’s renaissance.

But focusing on the money misses the point. It’s the leveraging, the kick-starting and the daring that will matter most.

Hackerman’s idea — an 18,500-seat arena and a 500-room hotel connected to an enlarged convention center — could be transformational.

His company, Whiting-Turner Contracting, has built many of Baltimore’s renaissance landmarks, Harborplace in particular. Hackerman was virtually the in-house builder for William Donald Schaefer’s new city.

Now, though, if this latest idea takes hold, his name will be as prominent as the corporate name. At 92, after decades of projects around the nation, he might well be looking for a final hurrah.

If it happens, it will come at a time when no one seemed to have the big idea — or even a good little idea — that a transformational initiative would require. The economy and the nation’s lack of urban focus in recent decades have not been promising for cities.

As Schaefer predicted 31 years ago, the city has to keep finding ways to redefine and rejuvenate itself. In the intensely competitive world of conventions and tourism, you need an idea a day.

‘Scary good’

Hackerman’s proposal is a gift — and a challenge to the city and state. He has proposed to finance the hotel and arena at around $500 million, but he says the complex needs a larger convention center so it can attract more and larger conventions. An enlarged facility would cost an estimated $400 million — more than a trifle, to be sure.

That expansion might not be something anyone would have proposed without a private investor such as Hackerman. What he’s doing is pushing government to give Baltimore another chance to survive — and to maximize its long-standing investment in Baltimore. The project would vault Baltimore past American cities which are competing for convention business, says Tom Noonan, head of the city’s convention bureau.

“If we do this we get scary good,” he says. “We’ll get diminishing returns if we do nothing. We lost 700,000 room nights since 2005 because no dates were available or we weren’t large enough.”

Noonan thinks of the Hackerman-inspired project as Conventions 3.0

By his reckoning, the Inner Harbor and the National Aquarium were Conventions 1.0. The 1996 convention center expansion, along with Orioles Park and M&T Bank Stadium, were 2.0.

With the city looking for stability in the recession, wobbling under a burdensomely high tax rate and struggling to meet its pension obligations to city workers, only a bold private sector initiative could have made such a project remotely feasible.

A feasibility study will be done, of course. But one is tempted to ask: Study what? Is there another game in town? Baltimore and the state can’t be complacent. This city can’t allow other cities to move ahead of it, unchallenged.

Ebbing political power

The big challenge will be winning support from state lawmakers to approve the $400 million addition to the convention center.

When Schaefer was mayor, the governor was Marvin Mandel, an ally who came out of the same Northwest Baltimore political club.

Moneyman Irv Kovens — who helped bankroll Schaefer and Mandel — could drive to Annapolis and tell Marvin: “Don needs a convention center” or “Don needs a World Trade Center.” And Mandel would help to make it happen.

Those days are gone. Baltimore stands to lose power in the General Assembly this year as population losses drop the number of state senators by one. The city’s ebbing political power is no secret.

So Baltimore has done what it could. For example, the city-owned Hilton Hotel near Camden Yards has been a boon.

“We’ve had 130 events that would not have come without the Hilton,” Noonan says.

Looking to the future, Noonan says the city can argue that the current debt on the convention center expansion will be retired in 2014. A further expansion, he says, will win business from the District of Columbia, National Harbor and Philadelphia, to a name a few.

The Maryland Stadium Authority will, of course, do its study to see if the whole thing makes sense.

But again, how could it not make sense?

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email is [email protected]