Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hotel Rodricks

When I read Dan Rodrick's column (Hotel idea can work for city, if city can work for hotel) earlier this week, I became a little less skeptical of the proposal to build a city-financed and run $305 million convention center hotel. Community and religious leaders, most notably BUILD, have argued that the city should not be spending millions of more dollars for downtown improvements while our neighborhoods are in desperate need of improved services and infrastructure. Rodrick's outlined a number of conditions which, if met, could stifle this criticism:

1. At least 80 percent of the staff for the hotel must be city residents
2. "A high percentage - say, 50 or even 60 percent - of the staff must be identified as "new workers," meaning previously unemployed or underemployed Baltimore residents who are specifically trained for full-time, unionized jobs in the hotel"
3. "New workers" should be eligible for management positions
4. " There should be no barriers to Baltimoreans who step up to get into the pipeline for these 500-plus positions"

If these guidelines were followed, the benefits of the hotel would be two-fold: it could attract more conventions to the city while also serving to improve our neighborhoods by giving more city residents a paycheck to take back from downtown to Edmondson Village or Greenmount West. This would certainly address some of the concerns of the critics of the current plans. When asked about Rodrick's suggestions, BUILD co-Director Bishop Doug Miles emphasized that "our opposition is condition" on yesterday's The Marc Steiner Show.

There is only one problem with Rodrick's conditions, and it is the problem any plan that includes city financing of the hotel faces: there is no guarantee that the enterprise will be successful. As has been noted in the public discourse, the convention business is on the decline. The "big-box" style of retail is changing the way business is done. Instead of hundreds of local clothing stores sending representatives to a conference, Wal-Mart only needs to send one. The statistics back up this assertion: last year, although the number of conventions inceased by 2.6%, the number of people and places involved declined by nearly 1/3.

Should the city be taking such a large financial risk? There is no reason to believe that "If we build it, they will come." In fact, the trends in the convention business suggest otherwise. If the venture is expected to be profitable, then why aren't private interests jumping at the opportunity? Isn't it reasonable to expect that private investors should be financing hotels so that the city can spend this money directly on neighborhood revitalization?

On the other hand, if successful, it would be a great asset for the city, especially if the hotel adheres to Rodrick's conditions. Increased tourism from conventions and more jobs for our residents sounds mighty good to me.

We at the League are one group who has yet to make up our minds.

from The League: Reassembled


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