Downtown Hotel/Conference Center – Comment for Mayor & Board hearing 2015-12-03


Let’s be positive about the hotel.

We need a hotel for visitors to stay downtown. It is pathetic that we have can’t now offer that kind of lodging to visitors. Every city our size has at least one hotel downtown, many have several. No city with a thriving downtown is without a single hotel downtown. We need the hotel, or hotels, to make downtown complete, livable and lively.

The hotel is well designed for the site – similar proportions and scale as other buildings in the Patrick Street-Creek/Canal strip. There are a number of higher buildings – 5 and 6 stories. But the strongest case for the hotel is that it is largely financially self-supporting. That tells us that users will value its services sufficiently to support its cost of $41m. There is potential demand for the hotel lodging.

The opposite is true of the $13m Conference Center. It needs heavy subsidies since its revenues are apparently estimated to be a fraction of its costs. That’s not surprising. There is a huge amount of conference/convention center capacity regionally and nationally. For two decades state and local governments have been funding and subsidizing conference/convention centers around the country. Since 1990 the square footage has about doubled from 40m sf to 80m sf. There’s a glut of meeting space and not least in our region. Much of the space goes unused and the cut-throat competition for conferences means that the charges levied generally don’t provide a return on investment.

ConventionCenterFolliesHeywood Sanders a professor of public administration at the University of Texas San Antonio has documented the heavy losses suffered by taxpayers in his 2014 book Convention Center Follies. I hope you’ve all read the book. I spoke to him about the proposed Frederick Conference Center after sending him the consultant reports. He said it needs to be considered separately from the hotel because few federal employees will stay at the hotel. Its nightly charges are well above federal civil service allowance, so the classy hotel and conference center are a poor fit in an area where there are many US government employees (Ft Detrick etc) attending any conference. US Government conferences are likely to go where there is a convenient mix of differently priced hotels.

If the hotel wants to stage conferences then there are plenty of potential venues within easy walking distance – the Delaplaine Center, the Monocacy Valley Cannery, the Burr Arts Library, the Weinberg Center, Brewers Alley, some of the Churches, why not here in City Hall during the day… you could earn some fees from daytime conferences. If we want the hotel guest to patronize local businesses then get them out walking to scattered conference venues, don’t confine them to the one complex of buildings.

We DO need the hotel, we DON’T need the heavily subsidized conference center.

So I’d urge you to send Richard Griffin back to Plamondon to unbundle the conference center from the hotel project, either dump or defer the conference center part.  The conference center puts the hotel project in jeopardy.

We now have a Republican Governor and a more budget conscious Assembly. I don’t think we’ll get the $10m needed from the state under the MOU. Why jeopardize the hotel we need by making it conditional on state funding for a conference center we don’t need? It’s absurd.

Let’s have a fallback if the state doesn’t come through with the money for financing the conference center.  Let’s position ourselves so that the hotel can proceed on its own merits with minimal cost and risk to taxpayers. – editor 2015-12-13

ADDITION: A major obstacle to the project – not addressed above – is historic preservation. On the west of the site the plans sensibly show rehab and reuse of the old News-Post building. On the north side the hotel proper is reasonably proportioned to its historic surrounds. But on the southern edge of the site, close to the Carroll Creek canal another historic building, the Birely Tannery building is proposed for complete removal.BirelyTannery

This is a major blunder by the designers. True, the old Tannery building is in the middle of the Conference Center, and it is not easy to integrate into the design – largely because it’s set at the old grade of the creek – now about ten feet below the grade of the canal park walks that set the grade for the base of the Conference Center. But with a little imagination and some retaining walls it could have been designed as a feature of the new Center, perhaps a museum of 19th century industry in Frederick.

The Birely Tannery building is the only remaining of four which used to operate in Frederick. The main building is a rather non-descript two story brick building but it has a rather fine and distinctive large square chimney that soars over the building.

It should be preserved and restored. The conference center itself could be scaled back, or deferred so that the tannery can be kept.

mapRight or wrong the City’s Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) has the power to over-rule the Mayor and Board’s approval for the project by denying a demolition permit on the tannery building.  That’s another argument for detaching the conference center from the hotel – so the hotel can proceed while everyone argues over the tannery building smack in the middle of the footprint of the conference center.

– editor 2015-12-13

NOTE: This was first published at the Reform Historic Frederick website:

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