Dear Delegate/Senator: Reported in the Frederick News-Post this morning is an effort by a minority of Frederick County delegates to fund a Frederick conference center boondoggle through parliamentary trickery. Bills to enable the Maryland Stadium Authority to fund a Downtown Conference Facility in Frederick (HB1474, SB1038) were introduced and advanced in the proper way to the Appropriations and Finance committees respectively. Each committee held hearings, taking written and spoken testimony on March 8 and March 22.
Those committees each made the independent decision that the Frederick project was not fit for state funding, and no move was made to advance either bill further. The enabling legislation was in effect shelved for this year at least. Meanwhile the minority of County delegates schemed to bypass regular General Assembly processes by sneaking the same money into the budget conference bill yesterday.
This makes a mockery of established General Assembly review procedures for state spending. Please use your influence and your statutory powers to stop this.
1. Such a deceitful parliamentary maneuver bypassing fiscal review is unacceptable
2. The project has not yet been reviewed by key City agencies including the City Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission and is not ready for funding, since those independent city agencies frequently require changes to such projects before they will grant permits
3. The project as presently planned as an ‘upscale’ and ‘full service’ facility is wasteful having been valued at $36 million while costing twice that
4. The state funding and underwriting of losses for this one hotel operator is unfair to established hotels, especially those investing in meeting space with their own resources on the south and southwest sides of the City, and will only encourage more such corporate welfare at taxpayer expense
5. Conference facilities sponsored by state agencies generally are chronic lossmakers – think Rocky Gap Hotel, Chesapeake Bay Conference Center, Ocean City Convention Center, Baltimore Convention Center in Maryland, nearby Lancaster County Convention Center PA and scores more further afield
6. Consultant studies conducted by the City and the Stadium Authority suggest the financial prospects of the hotel side of this project are marginal, but they ignore completely the finances of the associated conference facility which is proposed for state funding and City guarantees
7. Promoters of this project in the City have managed to garner some political support based on the lie that taxpayers are not at risk, yet the detailed wording of the bill states that the City will assume responsibility for all operating expenses including losses
The frantic effort by promoters of this boondoggle to gain state funding at this point constitutes unacceptable state interference in City level decision-making. By injecting a state funding agency into the process it will pre-empt review of the project under City code for historic preservation and traffic impacts. Project promoters are attempting to impose a made-in-Annapolis fait accompli.
Most of all we need time at the City level to clarify the consequences for City taxpayers of the City making commitments to accept responsibility for operating costs, including deficits, since to date the project promoters have repeatedly claimed they will not be “on the hook.” We need honest objective review of likely taxpayer liability on this project.
Peter Samuel, Frederick
PS: This report details the parliamentary bypass in question:
General Assembly budget negotiators bookmark $16 million for downtown Frederick hotel and conference center
ANNAPOLIS — A committee of Maryland House and Senate lawmakers worked out their differences in a capital budget bill that supports $16 million in bond and grant funding for a downtown Frederick hotel and conference center.
The conference committee, made up of five senators and five delegates, approved three budget amendments relating to the downtown hotel project at a meeting late Wednesday afternoon.
The first amendment gives the city of Frederick $1 million in grant funding for next year. The remaining two amendments pre-authorize $7.5 million grants in both 2018 and 2019.
Pre-authorizations are essentially requests to the governor to include money in his proposed budget, said Sen. James “Ed” DeGrange Sr., D-Anne Arundel.
The conference committee’s move comes as a bill to seek about $19.8 million in bond funding for the project through the Maryland Stadium Authority is stuck in General Assembly committees.
Earlier in the legislative session, delegates Barrie S. Ciliberti, William Folden and David E. Vogt III and Sen. Michael Hough — all Republicans — voted not to support that bill. Delegate Kathy Afzali, also a Republican, abstained.
Sen. Ron Young and delegates Carol Krimm and Karen Lewis Young, all Democrats who represent the city of Frederick, supported and filed the bill.
That bill would have been the largest chunk of public funding for the conference center, which is now projected to cost about $69.8 million.
Under current plans, about $44 million will be paid by the developer of an attached full-service hotel, Plamondon Hospitality Partners.
Last week, a rift again formed between members of the delegation after a similar conference committee for the state’s operating budget considered an amendment that would have steered $200,000 to the project. That move was vigorously opposed by Republican delegation members.
On Wednesday morning, the House of Delegates passed the state’s $1 billion capital budget. The conference committee introduced and voted in favor of the Frederick conference center amendments around 5:30 p.m.
In letters sent Wednesday, Frederick County Executive Jan Gardner, Frederick Mayor Randy McClement and the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce asked lawmakers to find capital money for the project.
DeGrange said their support showed its economic importance to the county.
“We try to help where we can,” he said.
The first $1 million grant proposed by the budget conference committee comes with requirements that would need to be met before the money is released, according to the amendment.
None of the money can be spent until a memorandum of understanding outlining terms for development and financing of the project is signed by the Maryland Stadium Authority, county executive and County Council, Frederick’s mayor and Board of Aldermen, and the private developer of the property, according to the amendment.
The signed agreement must be sent to the General Assembly’s budget committees, which can comment. That money would be available when the requirements are met.
The amended capital budget with the conference committee’s changes could come back to the House and Senate floors as soon as Thursday morning.
“I’m delighted. I think it’s the most important economic development opportunity we’ve had in Frederick in decades,” Lewis Young said Wednesday evening after hearing confirmation of the amendments.
She and Krimm had been working with delegates to free up money for the project, as Ron Young was working with senators, the lawmakers said.
“We were looking for a partnership with the state. And I think this is that partnership,” Krimm said.
Young said he had been working on a funding commitment for some time, and was happy to see the money included Wednesday. He questioned any opposition.
“It’s unusual. We’ve had all kinds of senators and delegates saying to us that this is the first time that they’ve seen part of a delegation trying to turn down money to help their county,” Young said of those who opposed the Stadium Authority bill.
Hough said he will fight the committee amendments in the Senate.
“It is a complete slap in the face to the Frederick County delegates and the constituents that we represent in the county, and it is an ugly power play for corporate welfare dollars,” Hough said Wednesday. “I will resist it, and my hope is that the governor will veto this corporate welfare.”
Maryland budget secretary David Brinkley was at Wednesday’s meeting. He wouldn’t say whether the governor’s office backs the project, but said “the governor is supportive of certain economic development” and will consider the forthcoming memorandum of understanding as they write the 2018 budget.
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.
Follow Danielle E. Gaines on Twitter: @danielleegaines .