As the Maryland General Assembly 2017 session approaches, and supporters of a downtown Frederick hotel and conference make a final push for the project, the Frederick County delegation remains divided.
Members of the county delegation, in a meeting with Frederick’s mayor and aldermen Thursday morning, were split along party lines on whether to support the $15 million still needed from the state. Republicans said they would not support state funding for the project, while Democrats expressed the opposite.
Delegation members also disagreed on if the project was still viable at all.
The discussion comes after one of five parties in a memorandum of understanding about the project did not sign off on the agreement. The Maryland Stadium Authority board of directors on Nov. 14 voted not to approve the memorandum.
The city and county governments had already signed off on the document when the Stadium Authority voted.
The final two potential partners — Maryland Economic Development Corp., or MEDCO, and private hotel developer Plamondon Hospitality Partners — have not yet signed the agreement.
The memorandum, which laid out financing plans and a schedule for the project, was required for the project to receive the $1 million appropriation included in the state’s fiscal 2017 budget. During the 2016 General Assembly session, state lawmakers also pre-authorized $15 million for the next two budgets.
Funding is not guaranteed. It must be in Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed 2018 and 2019 budgets or added by the General Assembly.
A delegation divided
Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-District 4, on Thursday urged city officials to “lay to rest” the project, which she described as “dead.”
“We are 100 percent on board with the hotel, but we’re not 100 percent on board with $30 million of taxpayers’ money,” she said.
Her comment was in reference to the $31 million in public financing planned to fund public portions of the project — a 24,000-square-foot conference center, parking and infrastructure improvements, according to the latest memorandum of understanding. Plamondon would pay the $53 million cost of the 200-room hotel, the agreement stated.
The proposed hotel and conference center property at 200 and 212 E. Patrick St. is 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.
In an interview after Thursday’s meeting, Afzali predicted that any requests for state funding for the project in the coming legislative session would fail.
“If it comes forward in its same format, we will continue to kill it,” she said.
In the 2016 legislative session, a bill seeking $19.8 million in bond funding for the project through the Stadium Authority failed to move past General Assembly committees. The $16 million — a $1 million capital appropriation, plus $15 million pre-authorized for the next two fiscal budgets — emerged as an alternative put forth in budget amendments by the state conference committee.
Delegates Barrie S. Ciliberti, William Folden and David E. Vogt III and Sen. Michael Hough — all Republicans — voted not to support the 2016 bond bill. Afzali abstained.
Folden, Vogt and Hough reiterated opposition to the project in interviews Thursday. None said they would back the project in the upcoming legislative session.
Delegates Carol Krimm and Karen Lewis Young and Sen. Ron Young, all Democrats who represent the city of Frederick, said they would support the project.
“I’m not going to walk away from it,” said Krimm, District 3A. “It’s too important.”
She emphasized the economic development benefits the project will bring for downtown, east Frederick, and the city and county as a whole. The project will increase the tax base, which in turn reduces the tax burden for local residents, businesses and property owners, she said.
Karen Lewis Young, District 3A, also pointed out that the $16 million capital budget bill passed in the 2016 session came without the backing of the full delegation.
“There are many paths to obtain financing,” she said.
Richard Griffin, the city’s economic development director, on Thursday also hinted at alternative funding sources for the project. He said the scope of the project may change if the costs exceed the anticipated funding, a provision of the latest memorandum.
Griffin did not specify which parts of the project may be revised, or which other funding sources could pay for it. He also did not give a specific estimate of when those decisions might be made.
“It’s a complicated project,” he said. “It’s not a decision you can just make in a single meeting in a single day.”
Only a short time has passed since the Stadium Authority voted down the MOU, he said.
Under the agreement, MEDCO would own the conference center, and may also issue the tax-increment financing bonds planned as the city and county contributions. MEDCO is a state agency that borrows money and issues bonds to help state and local economic development agencies and private companies with projects that benefit the public.
MEDCO’s board in October reviewed but tabled a vote on the agreement amid a request for more information. Bob Brennan, the executive director of MEDCO, said the agency had not yet received a response to its request for information as of Thursday.
He maintained support for the project as a whole, however, calling the idea of a downtown hotel and conference center a “wonderful asset” for the city. He also indicated the agency would be willing to work on the project even without state funding.
Sen. Ron Young, District 3, was less optimistic the project could move forward without state funding.
He still supported the project, he said, but called for the city to “step up” and claim ownership of the conference center in order to receive state support. This support would be critical to securing funding in the next state budget, which may also be the last chance, he said.
“If it isn’t worked out this year, it’s probably dead for a long time,” he said.
Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, responded to inquiries for comment in an email Thursday.
“The budget process is underway,” he wrote. “It will be announced at the appropriate time in January.”
The Maryland General Assembly 2017 session will begin on Jan. 11.
Staff writer Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.