A feasibility study has found that the proposed expansion of the Baltimore Convention Center plus a new arena and hotel could increase annual direct spending by as much as $181.6 million in the city and support as many as 3,100 new jobs.
The conclusions of that study should easily convince the General Assembly to take the next step down a long road toward realization of this bold vision: approving the $2.5 million in Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed capital budget for preliminary planning and design of this vital project.
That work will help city and state officials to better estimate the cost of the undertaking and, most important, how to finance it. Initial estimates of the total cost of the plan, which was proposed by the Greater Baltimore Committee, were $900 million.
The plan calls for expanding the convention center, building a hotel to replace the nearby Sheraton Inner Harbor Hotel and constructing an arena connected to both the new hotel and the expanded convention center, allowing maximum flexibility for using the arena in conjunction with activities at the other two venues.
Willard Hackerman, president and CEO of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. and owner of the Sheraton, agreed initially to a land swap that would enable the arena to be built on the present Sheraton site. A new hotel, to be owned by Mr. Hackerman, would be built as part of the project.
Last May, Mr. Hackerman said he would assemble $500 million in private financing for the hotel-arena part of the project if the city and state would commit to expanding the convention center, which is estimated to cost $400 million.
Even though the pieces seemed to be in place to make this happen, much careful work needed to be done before committing this amount of public and private resources. The first big step was the feasibility study, which predicted that the convention center expansion would attract larger meetings and trade shows and that a new arena, replacing the outdated 50-year-old facility, would be also be a shot in the arm for Baltimore’s economy.
The next step, the $2.5 million preliminary planning and design work, will crunch all of the numbers and see if they stand up under intense scrutiny. Then and only then can decision makers make wise choices about committing public and private resources.
We continue to believe, as we have from the outset, that this plan could be transformational for Baltimore and it deserves to be pursued wholeheartedly. If current projections hold, more than half of the cost would be financed by the private sector — a boon for the fiscally challenged city and state governments.
The legislature should move expeditiously to approve the planning and design funds so that this crucial advance work, which we hope will clear the way for this project to proceed, can be done.