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Answers wanted on convention center plan

ANNAPOLIS — A Senate subcommittee adopted a measure in the capital budget on Thursday that would fund the planning and design of a proposed expansion to the Baltimore Convention Center with one caveat.

The Budget and Taxation capital budget subcommittee voted to allow Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposed $2.5 million grant to the Maryland Stadium Authority, but added language that would freeze the funds until the state Department of Budget and Management, Baltimore City and the project’s developer enter into a memorandum of understanding.

The memorandum would have to include preliminary agreement on the management and ownership structure of the convention center project — which includes a new hotel and arena — and how much money each party intends to spend on the project.

The memorandum would then be subject to review within 45 days by the legislature’s budget committees.

“I think this project is very important,” Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore City, said after the vote, adding that the result would be something the state could be proud of.

The subcommittee will report its decisions on the governor’s $3.6 billion capital budget to the full committee Friday.

The Department of Legislative Services recommended that the grant be deleted from the fiscal 2013 capital budget, calling it “premature” to fund preliminary planning and design without a firm financial commitment from the state and city. The entire project is expected to cost $900 million, $500 million of which would come from private sources.

Legislative fiscal analysts also expressed concern that there was no “firm commitment from the private sector … regarding the hotel/arena components of the larger development project.”

But at the urging of McFadden, the subcommittee agreed to keep the funds in the capital budget.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, called the subcommittee’s decision “promising,” given that analysts had recommended the money be deleted from the capital budget.

“I think it’s very encouraging and promising they left the $2.5 million in the budget,” Fry said.

He added that he was “not shocked” that the conditions were added, but hoped those conditions would be relaxed as the capital budget is considered by the House of Delegates.

Access to the $2.5 million is necessary to answer some of the questions the subcommittee asked, Fry said.

“I think we have to talk to the House of Delegates,” he said, while conceding that the subcommittee deserves answers to questions the memorandum would provide.

“There are a number of questions that need to be asked and answered,” Fry said.

At the meeting’s conclusion McFadden, the vice chairman of the full Senate panel, said he did not expect the committee to oppose the subcommittee’s recommendation to keep the $2.5 million in the budget.

“I didn’t want the funds totally cut,” McFadden said.

While there would be no deadline for the parties to enter into the memorandum of understanding should the provision remain as written, McFadden said he suggested they do so “as expeditiously as possible” should the measure be passed by the General Assembly in its current form.