Letter to the Editor FNP: A promising downtown hotel project jeopardized by conference center boosterism

Just before the Mayor and Board of Aldermen voted December 3 (2015) to approve a Memorandum of Understanding with Plamondon on the hotel and conference center they were seriously misled by economic development director Richard Griffin. The hotel of course is largely self-supporting, but according to the MOU the adjacent 24,000 square foot $14 million conference center will be taxpayer funded – via county and state agencies mainly. In response to criticism Griffin told the mayor and board: “One of the biggest concerns we all have, and that we all had, early on in this process is to make sure we rightsize this facility for Frederick and that we did not build a facility that would sit empty. All of the studies indicate that this facility will be full, which is great.”

(On the video of the hearing at 01:10:30 on http://cityoffrederick.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=15&clip_id=2743)

Two studies, one by Pinnacle consultants for the county Chamber of Commerce in 2010, another by Crossroads Consulting for the state Stadium Authority in 2012 have been made public and a third study for Plamondon was cited by Griffin in his prepared submission to the Mayor and Board as validating the first two.

The Pinnacle report focusses mostly on the viability of a full-service, upscale hotel, and recommends 14,000 square foot of total meeting space but not 24,000sf and not a full conference center (p38). It forecasts occupancy only for the hotel, saying little about the amount of usage the publicly funded portion might get. Likewise the Crossroads study focussed on demand for the hotel portion and recommended 14,000 to 15,000sf of meeting space (p5 and p22) But it notes that there has been a “supply boom” in meeting space which as a result is “more competitive.” (p16, 17) This second report emphasizes the need to make the conference center portion classy (‘high end’) in order to differentiate it from existing Holiday Inn or mid-market event space. Again Crossroads doesn’t venture any estimate of likely usage of the conference/events/meeting space to accompany the hotel.

I requested of Mr Griffin a copy of the third report but received no response from him despite a public information act filing. I got it anyway. The report, it turns out, was incorporated into the full Plamondon proposal to the City. Dated October 15, 2013 the study was conducted by the Pinnacle group again. This third report has the most extensive commentary on the conference center market. Its conclusion: “…we believe that 12,000 square feet is more reasonable (than higher numbers) and would adequately satisfy meeting demand.” (p91)

12,000 is recommended, not 24,000!

I’m all for Plamondon’s downtown hotel itself – a great project. Unfortunately the hotel is jeopardized by the City’s bundling it together with an oversized loser of a conference center dependent on an array of new taxes and financial gimmickry, and promoted with disgraceful boosterism.

Peter Samuel

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