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GBC wants to ask state for $2-3 million for downtown project

The Greater Baltimore Committee will seek state funds next year to advance the downtown convention center and arena proposal if a Maryland Stadium Authority study supports the plan.

The entire project carries a price tag of about $900 million, but GBC President and CEO Donald C. Fry said his organization would ask for just $2 million to $3 million for preliminary design, planning and better construction estimates to start.

“Tourism is competitive. It’s a contact support. You have to constantly be upgrading,” Fry said Monday at the GBC’s Economic Outlook Conference.

Fry and Visit Baltimore President and CEO Tom Noonan used the event to champion the arena proposal, continuing the lobbying campaign that will need to win over lawmakers not only in Baltimore, but the rest of the state as well, if the Inner Harbor redevelopment is to become a reality.

Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. head Willard Hackerman has pledged $500 million to pay for a 500-room hotel and 18,500-seat arena, leaving $400 million in public financing needed to build the attached convention center.

Del. Keiffer Mitchell Jr., D-Baltimore City, said he will wait until the stadium authority releases its market and economic feasibility study to decide whether to support the project. That study is expected by the end of the year.

“I need some convincing more than ‘If we build it, they will come,’” he said after the GBC event, adding that a greater challenge will be to convince representatives from the rest of the state to support the Baltimore initiative.

“The sell is going to be down in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County,” Mitchell said.

Noonan pitched the plan to expand the convention center as a way to keep up with other cities that offer bigger and better space nearby.

Baltimore has lost out on 461,000 one-night hotel room rentals because of the Baltimore Convention Center’s space limitations, he said.

“The room is full,” Noonan said. “The inn is full.”

Baltimore has about 300,000 square feet of convention space. Washington, D.C. has 703,000 square feet and Philadelphia, 679,000 square feet. Boston has 516,000 square feet and plans to double it. Even National Harbor, in Prince George’s County, has 470,000 square feet.

The GBC’s plan calls for the demolition of Hackerman’s Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and parking garage at the corner of Conway and Charles streets to make way for the new hotel and arena that would replace 1st Mariner Arena. The east wing of the convention center would be replaced with one twice its size that would leave about 600,000 square feet of convention space.

“You build me that building, we’ll be very tough to compete with,” Noonan said.

R. Samuel Fraundorf, president of Wilmington Trust Investment Management, gave the GBC crowd a bit of welcome, if not completely rosy news.

“We are not going to be entering a second recession,” he said. “It’s going to be sluggish. It’s not going to be terrific.”

While Maryland generally fared better than the rest of the nation during the recession, Fraundorf warned the state’s economy would grow at a slower pace as the country bounces back.

Moody’s Analytics projects 2.1 percent economic growth this year and 1.1 percent in 2012 for Maryland, while the country as a whole grows at 1.6 percent this year and 2.7 percent next year.

Much of that is due to the state’s reliance on the federal government, Fraundorf said. While Maryland accounts for just 2 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, 5.1 percent of federal dollars are spent here.

Federal spending declined to $23.6 billion in 2010 from $24.8 billion the year before, and that trend is expected to continue as Congress trims its budget.

That process adds to the uncertainty weighing on the economy, Fraundorf said.

“The economy overall is looking for some kind of reassurance that what we have been seeing we’ll continue to see, and if not, we’ll take a little pause,” he said.