ANNAPOLIS — Frederick County state lawmakers plan to meet twice next week to discuss a proposed downtown Frederick hotel, as the legislature’s bill filing deadline nears and tensions are increasing.
A crowd turned out in Annapolis on Friday morning for a meeting and possible vote on whether to pursue a bill to grant $17.8 million in bond funding from the Maryland Stadium Authority to help finance the proposed downtown hotel and convention center project. But a final bill hadn’t been drafted, and lawmakers said they still have questions.
The delegation plans to meet Wednesday to hear from an economist and other experts about financing for the project. A vote could take place next Friday.
About $44 million of the cost of the $82.47 million project will be paid by the hotel’s developer, Plamondon Hospitality Partners. The rest would be a combination of city, county and state funding, according to a memorandum of understanding signed by the city of Frederick.
The plan contemplates $14.8 million in bond funding from the Stadium Authority.
However, the Stadium Authority said the project would be sustainable with up to $17.8 million in financing, and suggested the bill could be crafted to that amount to create financial wiggle room if the project moves forward.
All public financing is projected to be paid back by new tax revenue generated by the project.
Whether to support the stadium bill — the largest chunk of public financing, which supporters say is necessary for the project — has become a debate centering on when public financing promotes a public good and when public financing becomes direct competition to private enterprise.
Randy Cohen, owner of the FSK Holiday Inn and the associated 5400 Holiday Drive LLC, has hired Annapolis powerhouse lobbyist Bruce Bereano to represent his interests in the downtown hotel debate.
Another lobbyist, Greenwill Consulting Group, is promoting the downtown hotel among lawmakers and lists the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce as a client.
Plamondon does not list an official lobbyist, according to the latest State Ethics Commission list of registered lobbyists.
Pointed references to whether donations related to the hotel project can influence a delegation vote have come up in Annapolis this week.
On Thursday, Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3, upset other delegation members during a bill hearing for his unrelated Real-Time Transparency Act of 2016 — a campaign finance reform proposal requiring that political committees report contributions of $1,000 or higher within 48 hours during an election year.
“Actually, in a way, I’m sorry I didn’t make this for all four years,” Young said at the hearing. “[Because] we have a situation at home right now where some members are opposing a project, and they all just happened to get very heavy contributions from the people opposing it and they’ve changed their positions.”
Young confirmed Friday he was referring to donations by Randy Cohen, who opposes the downtown project. However, the delegation has not taken any votes on the project.
A search of Maryland and federal campaign finance databases shows that Cohen, Bereano and Cohen’s company gave $9,997 to Republican members of the Frederick County delegation since June. Six donations were at least $1,000.
Young’s comments weren’t well received by others in the delegation.
“Senator Young has no idea how I’m voting because I have no idea how I’m voting,” Del. William Folden, R-District 3B, said Friday.
Others said Young’s remarks violated general decorum and respect in Annapolis.
“It is against the spirit of this body and a disservice to ever challenge somebody’s motivation for a vote,” said Sen. Michael Hough, R-District 4. “I have a good personal relationship with Senator Young, but I think on this one, he shouldn’t have said that.”
Hough received $2,000 from Cohen-related donors, and $1,500 from Greenwill, none of which will influence his decision, he said.
Young’s comments came as a blog post by MacRo Commercial Real Estate owner Rocky Mackintosh analyzing campaign donations was circulating. The post questioned if Republican delegation members were being influenced by donations connected to Cohen. In the post, those donations were compared to individual donations by Peter and Jim Plamondon, but not to other entities supporting the downtown hotel project.
However, campaign finance records show that Greenwill and other organizations that support the downtown project have also made donations, including to Young, but in smaller denominations.
Young received $787.50 in donations this past year between the Plamondons, a law firm that works for the company, and Greenwill.
Other donations were received from supporters of the project, including some who wrote letters of support to lawmakers in Annapolis, but who don’t have apparent direct ties to the project.
Delegate Karen Lewis Young, D-District 3A, received $437.50 from Peter and Jim Plamondon and the law firm. She said the attorney who made the donations, David Severn, is a longtime family friend. Donations from the Plamondons went to the Youngs because they purchased tickets to a pre-session breakfast.
Mackintosh said if the campaign donation comparisons in his post were incomplete, it was inadvertent. However, he said he wanted to add his voice to the growing debate because he thinks the project is good for downtown Frederick and the county.
Several delegation members said they didn’t know precisely how much money they’ve received from opponents or proponents of the downtown hotel. All said campaign donations would never influence a vote. Most said they didn’t think their colleagues could be influenced by donations either.
“I’m not going to judge them. I am judging what I think Mr. Cohen was trying to do,” Ron Young said.
Young said donations from Plamondon Hospitality Partners or other groups associated with the downtown project couldn’t sway his vote, because he has supported the downtown hotel project for many years.
Delegate Barrie S. Ciliberti, R-District 4, said he won’t be influenced by a Cohen donation because he also already made up his mind before a check was accepted by a new campaign treasurer.
“My decision was way, way before anyone contributed to me,” Ciliberti said. “There’s no way in the world these people are going to be influenced by a check for a thousand bucks, or whatever it is.”
Delegate David E. Vogt III, R-District 4, has received the most combined money in the past year from groups clearly related to the hotel debate. He easily rattled them off Friday: $1,797 from Randy Cohen, which included an in-kind donation for his congressional campaign kick-off; $500 to his delegate account from the FSK Holiday Inn; and $250 each from Jim and Peter Plamondon.
“I am not bought by anybody. Period,” Vogt said Friday. “Anybody who suggests such is insulting.”
Vogt said he may have received more donations because he’s been most open to hearing from both sides. He and Folden said they are undecided and looking forward to the discussion by the economist on Wednesday.
Folden received $1,700 from Cohen-related donors.
Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-District 4, received $1,500 from Cohen and $250 from Greenwill. She said it’s not surprising for a pro-business lawmaker to get money from private businesses.
Delegate Carol Krimm, D-District 3A, didn’t accept any individual contributions during the last reporting cycle of Jan. 15, 2015, to Jan. 13, 2016.
The proposed hotel would be on the property at 200 and 212 E. Patrick St., which is currently owned by a business entity formed by members of the Randall family. The Randall family also owns the parent company of The Frederick News-Post.