Soon after he first assumed office as mayor at the beginning of 2010, Randy McClement committed the city to sponsorship of a downtown hotel. It was to be a $45 million, three- or four-year project — due to open by the end of his first term or early 2014. Four years later, it is still a three- or four-year project — 2021 or 2022. Meanwhile, the city’s mismanagement of this project has impressed itself on the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Maryland Department of Commerce, the Department of Housing and Community Development, the majority of the state delegation to Annapolis, and Gov. Hogan. All have soured on it.
And rightly so. The city crew in charge has made so many mistakes. They chose the wrong site for a hotel this large. The trolley building, of course, is being kept, but this leaves the site with almost no usable street frontage. This has so far prevented the applicants from working up a permittable site plan, the site plan submitted last November having provoked a scathing list of 25 objections from city planning, engineering and legal staff last December — still not responded to. The cheeky applicants have simply reproduced that no-go site plan as part of a new memorandum of understanding for Board of Aldermen endorsement! The solution seems to be to buy up adjacent properties on Patrick Street. The new project budget shows extra land purchase obligations for the city, but there is no explanation for this. What does it buy? The aldermen are not told, just asked to sign a vague, unworkable plan and a blank check.
From about 2012 through May 2017, we were told that the city had to finance the conference center to the tune of $13.2 million. Even though it was to be run as part of the Plamondon hotel business, the conference center was to be regarded as “public infrastructure” and taxpayer-funded according to the 2015 MOU.
That has all changed. The new MOU provides for Plamondon to fund the conference center, while the city will fund a basement parking garage plus an engineered “podium” or platform on which the hotel and conference center will be built. We are supposed to believe that the cost to the city of the parking garage and podium is to be covered by $11.4 million allotted for “site development” in the MOU budget. With 160 parking spaces, this works out as a cost to the city of over $70,000 per car garaged — almost three times the cost of elevated deck parking. But the city takes on the risks of cost overruns of building an underground garage and the foundation pilings in the muck next to the creek. Not a good deal for taxpayers!
The strongest reason the MOU should not be renewed is that the 2015 deal was a shady insider fix in which the winning proposal was received and presented to insiders at the Hotel Advisory Committee even before the request for proposals was issued. The RFP was faux competition, political theater for the masses. The Board of Aldermen must stop using taxpayer resources to play favorites with cronies. Once that is clear, we’ll get a bunch of self-supporting lodging places downtown — like Annapolis and other cities. Already the Visitation Academy’s new owners propose a hotel without any special city support.
Finally, we have higher priorities for the use of taxpayer money than an “upper, upscale” hotel. The May flooding you reported has cost some $40 million. The 911 system suffers from budget limits. The cops need new premises. Many roads need fixing. What about affordable housing? Surely these established city/county functions need taxpayer funds ahead of a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored hotel.