ANNAPOLIS — As the General Assembly’s 2016 session winds down, the fate of a bill to secure $19.8 million in state bond funding for a downtown Frederick hotel and conference center is in question.
The bill received its final hearing before a Senate committee Tuesday, one day after “Crossover Day,” the traditional deadline for bills to be moved from one chamber to another. Bills moved by that day have the best chance of passing into law.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee, considering the bill Tuesday, didn’t express much hope for its passage.
“It’s a local bill, and we go by the delegation,” said committee Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County. “The delegation voted, the majority, against the bill. And the House hasn’t moved that bill, and I doubt that they will.”
Within the Frederick County delegation, all three Democrats who represent the city of Frederick supported the bill. Four Republican members who represent other parts of the county opposed the bill. Delegation Chairwoman Kathy Afzali, R-District 4, abstained.
A House version of the bill was considered in early March, but it has yet to come up for a committee vote.
But bills can move out of a committee late and through legislative hoops required to reach final passage before midnight on April 11 — if there’s a push from the right lawmakers.
Project advocates remained optimistic outside the Senate committee hearing room.
“It’s going to get through,” said Roger Wilson, Frederick County’s director of government affairs and public policy.
Tuesday’s bill hearing was unusual in some ways. The House and Senate have been meeting for extended floor sessions all week to move bills through to the other chamber, and many lawmakers are now being called from their own committees to give testimony in the opposite chamber.
At one point, Sen. Ron Young, D-District 3, the sponsor of the Senate bill, wanted to pass around a photo of Carroll Creek lit up at night to show the vibrance of downtown Frederick — but there were no lawmakers present close enough for him to hand the photo.
A state trooper stepped forward to carry the bill to Middleton and other committee members.
Young said the hotel would build upon the downtown revitalization that started with the Carroll Creek flood control and park project, which the state has invested heavily in.
A hotel “is something we have been working on for years,” Young said. “We think it will start a second renaissance in downtown Frederick.”
Two panels spoke in opposition to the project and two spoke in favor, though advocates said the lawmakers should have received hundreds of letters of support for the bill in their offices.
Proponents and opponents traded testimony about what economic impact the project might have, the need for a downtown conference center, how the building would match its historic surroundings and potential environmental concerns at the site.
Randy Cohen, owner of the Holiday Inn near Francis Scott Key Mall, told committee members it was unfair for his privately funded expansion to compete with the public funding being considered for the downtown project.
For one Finance Committee member, the scene was all too familiar.
“This is like déjà vu to me,” said Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., a Democrat from the Eastern Shore.
Mathias said he and other lawmakers from the Ocean City area came to Annapolis for years to get help from the Legislature for a similar bill to secure funding for expansion of the Ocean City Convention Center.
Just like this year with the Frederick hotel plan, there would be dissent and plans would be sent back to the drawing board, he said.
“We’re here deliberating these bills and one part of your community says no, and the other part says yes. It puts us in a very difficult position. ... All I was saying is, go home and work it out,” Mathias said.
Young, after the hearing, said he still hopes the bill could pass this year, but the project could move forward without the bill passing.
“There are several possibilities for the project,” he said. “It might happen some other way. We’re going down all the roads.”
The $19.8 million bond bill represents the largest chunk of public funding for the conference center, which is now projected to cost about $69.8 million.
About $44 million of that cost will be paid by the developer of an attached full-service hotel, Plamondon Hospitality Partners. The rest would be a combination of city, county and state funding.
The project’s budget includes $14.8 million in bond funding from the Stadium Authority, but the bill is written to include the higher $19.8 million figure that the authority asserts could be paid back through revenue generated by the project within 20 years.
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.