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$24.4M being spent to spruce up the Convention Center

At the Greater Baltimore Committee’s annual meeting last month, a crowd of 800 was wowed by plans to expand the Baltimore Convention Center, as well as build a new hotel and arena.

But what Baltimoreans may not know is that the convention center is already in the middle of a $24.4 million project to upgrade its facility and become energy and water efficient.

The 1.2 million-square-foot convention center was built in 1979 and expanded in 1996, but it has still needed upkeep and work to keep up with appearances and other convention centers across the country. Many convention centers are newer and larger than Baltimore’s, which is ranked 73rd for size among other centers in the U.S., city officials have 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.

“We have to keep up with the Joneses,” said Peggy Daidakis, executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center. “[The convention industry] is very competitive. We have to keep fresh and clean and be new as can be with the resources that we have.”

Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV said work on the convention center now shouldn’t come to a halt because of a project that’s several years away.

“Obviously the building is getting to the point where you need to start investing in it, or it’s not going to be an attractive place anymore,” Cole said. “Other cities in competitive markets have these shiny new buildings. We at least need to have it operational with all the lights working and the bathrooms functional.”

Aware that appearances count, the Baltimore Convention Center is planning to spend big money in upgrades over the next few years. Some of the upgrades have included typical interior makeovers, like new carpet, fresh paint and renovated restrooms. The planning of these improvements and figuring out how to pay for them started about four years ago, said Claire R. Copsey, deputy director of the convention center.

Last fall, the convention center spent $2.4 million in changing its outside terrace and the roof above the exhibition halls. The 27,497-square-foot outside terrace has been transformed into a green roof. More than 12,000 square feet of space was planted using drought-resistant vegetation, so use of excess water wasn’t necessary. Before, the roof was aging, and water constantly leaked into the exhibition halls.

While convention centers officials were in the middle of fixing the roof, they decided to task Baltimore-based National Roofing Co. Inc. with making the area more inviting for visitors by putting outside seating and fixing water features. Floura Teeter Landscape Architects Inc., also based in Baltimore, was retained to help in the landscaping of the green roof.

In December and January, officials spent $1.8 million to re-carpet both wings of the center, and new paint colors were picked to compliment the new carpet colors.

“Our repeat customers are like, ‘Wow, what did you do?’” Daidakis said. Keeping routine customers satisfied and letting them know that the convention center is upgrading itself is key to bringing large conventions back, she said.

In total, renovation of the east side of the center cost $2.4 million, and changes aren’t completed yet.

Total Contracting Inc. from Beltsville is in charge of adding new fixtures and redoing 20 bathrooms, as well as changing the center’s VIP rooms. The VIP rooms will have new furniture and paint, and some of the walls will be knocked out to give more space. Instead of having two bathrooms that were seldom used, the rooms will have only one restroom.

Construction hasn’t started on these changes, but Building Services Director Robert Parker said he expects them to be completed by December.

The convention center’s caterer, Centerplate, is in the middle of investing $2 million in upgrades to all of the retail food outlets, as well as updating flatware, glassware, china and kitchen equipment.

Part of updating the retail food outlets involves figuring out what to do with many of the large spaces in the convention center. Some parts of the west wing were designed to be lounges, Daidakis said, but were never used efficiently to bring in foot traffic and keep visitors inside the convention center.

A big part of having good food kiosks and stations is to make sure that visitors don’t go elsewhere in downtown Baltimore for food, and are more likely to spend money inside the center on concessions. That keeps money inside the convention center, which is already fighting to hold onto convention dollars.

Stamford, Conn.-based Centerplate picked up the catering contract for the convention center in December 2009, after Aramark Corp. held the contract for about a decade.

The convention center is also about to start a renovation to all of its lighting and energy uses, pending approval from the city’s Board of Estimates on a $19.6 million contract. That approval is expected Wednesday. After financing is secured for the contract, a 20-month construction process will start to replace all of the lighting.

Solar panels will also be placed on the center’s entire roof. These energy-efficiency initiatives will save the convention center about $1.1 million in energy costs each year, Parker said.

But the convention center’s next big project will involve digging up Sharp Street.

After the Baltimore Grand Prix wraps up Labor Day weekend, Sharp Street will be temporarily closed as construction workers will dig up the road to search for an incessant water leak.

The convention center is working with the city’s Department of General Services and the Maryland Stadium Authority to look for contractors for the roadwork and determine costs.

“That’s a priority,” Daidakis said. “Hopefully that will be happening sooner rather than later.”

But even if plans move forward with an expanded convention center that would demolish the existing east wing, Daidakis said she isn’t worried about that replacing renovations going on now.

“They make it sound like the project will take place tomorrow,” she said. “But it takes about five years to get through the experience, the design and the program. We’ve done all this work. But if they make it go away for better reasons, then we’ll go there.”