ANNAPOLIS — As the cost and scale of the downtown hotel and conference center project are decreasing, more questions were raised in Annapolis by Frederick County lawmakers who are slated to vote for or against a bond to support the proposal on Friday.
The Frederick County General Assembly delegation met Wednesday morning with representatives from the city and county, and an economist hired by the city to conduct an analysis of the project, in an effort to answer any remaining questions before Friday’s vote.
“I don’t think anyone in this room is against a downtown conference center. Let’s make that clear,” said Delegate Kathy Afzali, R-District 4. “We’ve all voiced some concerns and voiced some questions that we want answered today.”
Some members of the delegation have said pegging local leaders to specific numbers and concepts in the proposal has been difficult, and they wanted all the information possible before Friday’s scheduled vote.
The county lawmakers are considering whether to throw their support behind a bill being drafted by Delegate Carol Krimm, D-District 3A, that would grant $17.8 million in bond funding from the Maryland Stadium Authority to help finance the proposed project, which would be built at the former Frederick News-Post site in the 200 block of East Patrick Street.
The bond bill represents the largest chunk of public funding for the proposal, which is now projected to cost about $69.8 million after an updated budget was created by the city late last week.
About $44 million of that cost will be paid by the hotel’s developer, Plamondon Hospitality Partners. The rest would be a combination of city, county and state funding.
The plan contemplates $14.8 million in bond funding from the Stadium Authority, which found that the project would be sustainable with up to $17.8 million in financing, the figure in the proposed legislation.
The decrease in project cost came after the city and other partners made the decision to strip the funding and costs of a sixth downtown parking garage, which will move forward separately, said Richard Griffin, the city’s director of economic development.
Other questions remain in the budget, including a $3.3 million hole where the city and county hoped to use 1 percent of a 2 percent increase in the county’s hotel tax to create a capital projects fund at the Tourism Council of Frederick County, which receives most of those tax dollars. Initial deposits to the fund would have supported the downtown hotel and conference center, said John Fieseler, executive director of the council.
The five Republican members of the delegation voted last month to cap the tax at the current rate, 3 percent, to keep the money from being diverted to the downtown hotel. Charging other hotels’ customers to help build a competing business wasn’t fair, the lawmakers said.
Wednesday morning’s meeting was intended as a worksession for lawmakers, but a handful of invited attendees were also allowed to speak and ask questions.
Sage Policy Group CEO Anirban Basu, who wrote an economic analysis of Frederick County real estate that supports the hotel project, fielded questions.
While downtown Frederick is widely viewed as an economic development success story, Basu said lawmakers should consider it still “a work in progress.”
Delegate William Folden, R-District 3B, asked why the project couldn’t be successful solely through private investment, and asked other questions about the hotel’s viability.
Basu said he believes the scale of public-sector involvement in the project is appropriate, and such bonds are attractive because they are essentially a less-expensive form of financing.
One of the most vocal critics of the project, Randy Cohen, spoke about fairness.
Cohen said he had been interested in pursuing the downtown hotel project himself, but after years of failed proposals from the city, he chose instead to invest in his current hotel and conference center, the FSK Holiday Inn.
The debate has highlighted rifts between county lawmakers and business owners. Cohen and the Plamondons are partners on a different project, and Cohen’s family has a long history with lawmakers who now support the downtown hotel despite his objections.
Afzali asked delegation members to try to see eye-to-eye on the issues, without sniping at one another.
“I think everyone is on board with a downtown hotel. I think everyone wants to see something wonderful happen in that spot,” she said. “There are some of us who have concerns about using public money for the conference center piece of it. ... Maybe we could all give a little and come up with a plan that we can get everybody on board with.”
In a last-minute wrinkle, Delegate Karen Lewis Young, D-District 3A, said she may consider brokering a compromise version of the bill, but wanted to speak with municipal lawmakers first.
Delegation members have said they would vote on the Stadium Authority bond bill on Friday at their weekly meeting.
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.