With a clear separation along party lines, members of Frederick County’s delegation have disagreed for years over using state money for a planned multimillion-dollar hotel and conference center in downtown Frederick.
But now, as three new delegates prepare to take office — one of whom has voiced clear support for the project — the group may enter the 2019 session with a different stance.
“I’m optimistic,” Frederick Mayor Michael O’Connor said of the potential for a more united front on the planned public-private-funded downtown hotel and conference center.
“We are trying to address what we think are the concerns — the separation of the sources of funds and the uses of funds — and make it really clear what the state money is going to support,” O’Connor explained. “We can articulate that the state money will be used to support public infrastructure. We want to lay that out in front of the delegation and see where they stand.”
Clearing up the funding breakdown
The funding breakdown O’Connor is referring to is a change in the project plans that developers Plamondon Hospitality Partners revealed in the spring of 2017 that ensured money from the city, Frederick County and the state will not fund construction of the physical hotel or conference center. Initially, public money was set to help fund construction of the conference center.
While the developer is set to contribute the lion’s share of the estimated $79.5 million cost, a total $16.5 million is set to come from the city of Frederick, Frederick County and the state for construction of public infrastructure, including land and on-site public parking, as well as related off-site road, utility, streetscape and creek area improvements. The revenue sources include tax increment financing, hotel tax revenue generated from the hotel itself, the city’s parking fund, and state grants.
Broken down, various city and county bonds and cash are set to provide $10.75 million, with the remaining $5.75 million slated to derive from state sources, which includes a $500,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development and $5.25 million in state capital grants from the General Assembly.
Throwing a wrench in the plans, the money from the General Assembly is hung up with the Board of Public Works. The three-member group, which Gov. Larry Hogan heads, is required to release the funds and has not taken it up. Hogan has publicly voiced opposition to the state contributing money to the project, which has made the approval tricky.
O’Connor said he believes that state officials, including Hogan, may not have been properly versed on the current funding breakdown, or have doubts about the details, thus spurring the concerns.
“Because it doesn’t say that explicitly [the state money is not going to construction], there is some concern that the money could be used for other purposes,” he said. “We’re hoping to and are willing to work with the delegation to make application of the state funds more specifically.”
O’Connor also said that the funding set to come from the city and county is tapped out, and thus the state funding is needed to support the project in its current form.
“If we thought we could do it on our own, we would do it on our own,” he said.
Chance for more support from three new delegates
For years, the Democratic members of the city’s delegation have supported the state’s contribution to the project, while the Republicans have voiced opposition.
During the 2018 election, three new delegates-elect — Jesse Pippy (R-District 4), Dan Cox (R-District 4) and Ken Kerr (D-District 3B) — replaced three of the GOP members who were against providing the funding, thus giving some hope to the project proponents.
Last week, Pippy and Cox both said that they had not yet taken stances, while Kerr voiced support.
“Yes I support funding for the downtown hotel and conference center,” Kerr said. “It’s a piece of tourism in Frederick that’s missing.”
He added that he has not had discussions with the other legislators, though, and as a freshman delegate will not introduce legislation about it himself.
Cox said he has “obviously” heard about the project but had not discussed it enough to form a solid opinion on whether state money should be used. He said he wants to hear from the other legislators, especially Delegate Carol Krimm (D-District 3A), who was elected chairwoman of the delegation, as well as his fellow district representatives, Barrie Ciliberti (R-District 4) and Pippy.
“I appreciate the opportunity and I’m looking forward to working with everyone for the improvement of Frederick in every way,” Cox said. “I’m waiting for the delegation. I’ll wait to hear from [them] about [it]. I wasn’t part of any discussions that the delegation had prior. I don’t think I’m ready to speak on it.”
Pippy had a similar take.
“As far as the project is concerned overall, I think that is up to the city of Frederick and other businesses that are involved or want to be involved in that. As far as the public debt, I want to do what’s best for the taxpayer,” he said. “Ultimately I’m going to have to learn more. I haven’t been involved in any previous role. I am looking forward to learning more about it.”
Pippy also pointed out, like Cox, Ciliberti and Kerr, his district does not include the city of Frederick. He understands, however, that the project would have an impact on the county overall.
Veteran Republicans not budging on opposition
Ciliberti and Sen. Michael Hough (R-District 4) said last week that despite the new funding breakdown of the project, they still do not support state money going toward it.
Hough pointed out that while the public money is not set to technically go to the construction of the buildings, it is slated to fund parking, which in the current plan is to serve as the foundation of the hotel.
“Whether it goes to pay for floors one through two or the foundation and the garage on the ground, it’s not like we’re paying for a parking deck across the street and have a regular city parking deck. This is the foundation of the hotel that we’re building,” he said. “It’s the same. My position hasn’t changed, that the state government shouldn’t be in the business of funding the construction of privately owned and operated hotels. It’s the job of privately owned and operated hotels to operate their own hotels.”
He also pointed out that he is not against the project per se, and does not mind if city and county leaders want to use local measures to fund the project, but he does not believe state money should be involved.
And although he has made his position clear, he encouraged the new delegates to verse themselves on the matter and make their own decisions.
“The new members, I encourage them to talk to opponents and proponents and make their minds up,” Hough said.
Ciliberti pointed out that hoteliers such as Randy Cohen, who built the Hampton Inn & Suites on Opossumtown Pike and is constructing another neighboring hotel, are developing projects with no public funding assistance.
“Why should he fit the bill 100 percent, when others aren’t? I don’t care if they put a hotel downtown ... but not with taxpayer money, no,” Ciliberti said. “For me it’s no deal, no dice, no dollar.”
As chairwoman of the delegation, Krimm is responsible for corralling the other legislators on local matters. She has historically supported state funding for the hotel and conference center project and said last week that she has not yet contacted the new delegates about the matter, but plans to do so soon.
“I look forward to discussing it with them,” she said. “We just haven’t had the opportunity yet.”
She added that she does not know the stances of Pippy, Cox and Kerr, but that she knows Ciliberti and Hough have not been in favor of the state contribution. But like O’Connor, Krimm hopes some education and further discussions will help sway their opinions.
“Their previous positions did not support the previous structure. But there’s been a restructuring. I think that brings a new perspective and maybe new discussions on that,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, I’ve been very consistent in supporting the hotel and state funding for the project. The money would not be going to the hotel it would be going to the infrastructure.”
The other members of the delegation, Sen. Ron Young (D-District 3) and Delegate Karen Lewis Young (D-District 3A), have both historically and consistently voted in favor of providing state funds for the project.