Richard Griffin, director of the City Department of Economic Development and project manager for the Downtown Hotel & Conference Center on the Frederick News-Post’s new Frederick Uncut podcast with host Colin McGuire and City Hall reporter Nancy Lavin: 2016:12:06
Transcript of those portions of the 42 minute podcast relating to the hotel project follows:
Colin McGuire: (We must ask about) the hotel situation because that seems to be the hottest (local) topic…pretty much in the history of Frederick since the Francis Scott Key (Hotel) was here. This is the biggest topic ever. Nuts and bolts from you. Where do we stand, What’s going to happen next?
Richard Griffin: Sure. Let me say first that nothing good ever happens easily. You have to take steps one at a time, and the good projects take a long time. And if you look at where Frederick started 40 years ago after the flood and you compare downtown today (with then), there’s been a lot of work and a lot of effort over a lot of years.
The downtown hotel project is a complex project, and as a complex project it takes time, it takes effort, it takes a lot of explaining, it takes a lot of refining budgets, and figuring out when one source of funding doesn’t pan out the way you expect it to, where are you go to next. So we are in that process now, and…
We absolutely believe in this project. Absolutely everyone that we have consulted with on this project has felt as though that a hotel downtown is very much needed. And secondly you know our employers, and our residents and our industry and folks have all believed that if we can induce new business with a conference center and to be an anchor on Carroll Creek park which was always part of the plan from 30 years ago, 40 years ago when they started coming up with the Carroll Creek master plan. So you know: we’re working on it…
Nancy Lavin: In terms of what’s next for this project, you said there’s a lot of support for this project, but there has been a series of events recently that have indicated certain
people that might have been a part of the project don’t support the project as it is currently laid out, so the Maryland Stadium Authority has said they don’t want to sign the in-progress agreement because they don’t want that role in the project. And MEDCO, the Maryland Economic Development Corporation, which was going to issue the TIF bonds and own the conference center has said they don’t feel comfortable with the project in its current form, in part after the Frederick County delegation, again, said they were not united going into this legislative session. So what is next for the project?
Griffin: Well the state funding is only part of the funding. The developer is bringing in the biggest chunk of cash to this project, they are bringing $53m to the table. The City and the County have both approved tax increment financing generally to be a part of the project. We also know now that we are going to have a portion of the hotel tax that is going to be available to the project. So although we certainly are continuing to work with the state at all levels to try to advance our request for funding down there, we also recognize, and our agreements all state, that if we don’t get that funding and if the expenses of what is being proposed outweigh… the funding component, we will have to re-scope the project. So you know we are not giving up, but the state portion of the project is only a part of the project, it’s not the whole. So we are moving forward with the pieces that we have and we’ll keep working with the state and try and advance our request.
Lavin: what exactly does that mean, keep working with the state? Are you trying to get the $7.5m that was pre-authorized for this year’s budget even without MSA, MEDCO and (only) half the delegation…
Griffin: You know the legislature approved $1 million in last year’s budget for design, and pre-authorized $7.5m in the next two budgets. So we certainly have requested and will continue to work with the legislature, and with the leadership in Annapolis to try to see if we can access those dollars. That’s our goal. We’ve stated that since the very beginning.
Lavin: so the $1 million that was already allocated required that the five (actually four – PSam) parties sign an agreement and two of those parties, the Stadium Authority and MEDCO have said they are not going to sign an agreement. Do you think you are going to get that $1 million?
Griffin: You know again I can’t speculate. We’ll work with our delegation. We’ve got to work with the legislature and I don’t want to say, it’s above my past grade, but at the same time we have a Mayor and a County Executive and you have a legislature and all those people have to weigh in on that. It is not something that I alone make a decision about.
Lavin: So state funding has been… even though it is just a piece of it, kind of one of the big pieces that have caused some changes to the project as it stands already. You know two fiscal years ago when I first came on board with the (Frederick) News-Post I remember you guys didn’t get the amount you were hoping I think it was $15 million at the time, and then in the last legislative session the way you were hoping to get state funding didn’t work out, then there was a sort of workaround at the last minute… At what point do you say: if there is no state funding we cut the scope or nix the public private partnership and just have a privately funded hotel. At what point do you cut your losses?
Griffin: Well as I mentioned before the state funding is only part of the funding. I mean the developer, the city and the county have all three signed a MOU but in addition the City and the developer already have a longstanding MOU so we will continue to move forward with the project along the lines of what we have all agreed to. And that is City and County putting in tax increment financing into the project, the hotel tax, and we do have some parking fund investment that will go into the site to build parking on the site. If we have to re-scope the project we will. But we are prepared to move forward to continue to ask the legislature to help support us as we move forward.
McGuire: …“re-scope” the project what does that necessarily entail?
Griffin: well re-scoping is looking at the size of the conference center, the amount of parking on the site, the number of rooms of the hotel, those are the kinds of things you’d look at to see if you bring the cost down so you could meet the dollars you have in hand. But as I was saying before we certainly and all of the entities have continued to articulate a strong interest in continuing to move this project forward. So we, the Mayor, the County Executive and our team at the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Frederick Partnership, the Tourism Council, East Frederick Rising all have continued to support the project and say they want to see it move forward we are continuing to do that.
Lavin: I would say: what about the Republican members of the delegation before MEDCO said they wouldn’t sign the MOU Kathy Afzali who is the leader of the Frederick County delegation in a meeting with the Board of Aldermen said the project was ‘dead’ in her mind.
Griffin: Well I think you have to look at all of the, you know… You have different groups and different factions and each has their opinion about the project but at the end of the day the legislature is a large body and they will weigh whether or not the project continues to receive any state funding or not. That is an overall legislature’s decision and we are working with our delegation. We’ll keep them briefed and keep moving forward.
Lavin: what exactly does ‘moving forward’ mean, what can you do while you are waiting for state funding?
Griffin: Some of the questions are better for (City lobbyists in Annapolis) but my understanding is that the way the budget works is that the monies become available at certain points in the year and so through the legislative session there will have to be discussion about how that money becomes available to the project but that is the goal. When you have a pre-authorized budget number then a discussion starts to ensue around whether or not that number is in the budget and then they have committees and groups that met and talk about whether they put out in or not.
Lavin: I’m more interested in it from a project partnership (standpoint.) What beside the state funding components can you be working on while you are still waiting for state funding?
Griffin: I think I’ve mentioned those (other) resources already. We have a lot of resources that are committed already.
Lavin: But what action would you be taking?
Griffin: We will continue to move through the process with Maryland Historical Trust, and design, and as soon as we are able to access the dollars for design, we will keep that process moving forward.
Lavin: dollars for design, is that the $1 million that as contingent on a five groups signing an agreement, and two of those said No.
Griffin: It was contingent on four (emphasis) groups signing an agreement, and you know the way the budget works is that money becomes available at certain points in the year and so through this legislative session there will have to be some discussion about how that money becomes available to the project, but that is the goal.
McGuire: the hotel is a very contentious issue in the community, people have a lot of different opinions. What if the hotel (project), what if it didn’t exist with you and the city, either the hotel has already happened or it is not even a plan, what else. What does your day look like outside of dealing with the hotel? It looks like you are consumed with the hotel.
Griffin: we work on a ton of other things, that is the most interesting for people and it has been in the news the most and there is a lot of funding at stake with it. But we are working with projects like opening these distilleries, we’re working with Flying Dog Brewery right now to close on their property so they can build their new plant in the city. We are continuing to attract private investment in the city of Frederick at a rate that is each year surpassing the previous year. And the number of commercial permits is surpassing the previous year. When you have community where the residential population is increasing, your commercial investment is increasing, where our downtown and historic district is gaining notoriety (sic — he means ‘gaining notice’) nationally and internationally, we anticipate we are going to be able to continue to attract private industry to Frederick so we focus mostly on driving solutions and a playing field that the private investors can come into Frederick and invest and be successful and we will pursue projects like Carroll Creek Park, building Monocacy Boulevard, our water and sewer plant extension, expanding our airport, infrastructure that will help attract private industry and private investment for our community. And jobs for our community. And at the end of the day it comes back to people and to have places to work, and they want to have cool places to shop.
McGuire: right now the hotel is the big issue, number one. What’s project #2…
Griffin: for the City I’ve got to say it’s the development of Monocacy Boulevard, it’s been a really big project for the City…
Lavin: second biggest issue the Roger Brooke Taney bust in front of City Hall, but in economic development I thought you were going to name the Flying Dog Brewery… a big $50m.
Griffin: 1 million square feet at Riverside Research Park that is remaining to be developed challenge is marketing that space is access.
Lavin: your reaction to everything that is going on on social media? You have a Twitter account. You guys use Facebook. And then the hotel project there is a plethora at least four or five Facebook pages created solely for or partially about the hotel project, and there are cartoons that are (drawn) there are screenshots of people speaking at public hearings, there was a threat of a libel law suit. So things are really heating up on Facebook. What do you make of all that?
McGuire? It’s brutal
Griffin: Social media is fascinating to me that you can say or do or write anything, and there is no fact checking around. People can post or say anything they want to. They think it must be factual because I am seeing it. But in reality someone once told me you don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, and I suppose in a digital age. I see some of the stuff up there and I find it disappointing I guess. People are very shallow when it comes to identifying certain individuals and making fun of certain individuals. We have never had any problem with people questioning any of the projects we work on. That’s the American way and people ought to be able to have their say-so and be able to ask questions, and come to public meetings but the social media… I’m not as savvy on social media as some are…. I do occasionally look at the posts but I don’t…. I think most people realize that the vast majority of folks in Frederick support this project. We have had tons of people who have stood up and supported it, so I don’t get too worried about it.
McGuire: does it shake you to read some of those things?
Griffin: I haven’t seen most of it, so … I’m not sure when I was last on one of those sites… not in the last couple of months. Twitter…. you mentioned these Facebook pages. It is one thing if you have a point and want to make a solid factual point, but the idea of being personal about it, or taking on people’s looks or …. that’s not the way Frederick operates for the most part. Most folks can see through that I think.
Lavin: why has this project attracted so much more heated, and not very nice dialog?
McGuire? It’s brutal.
Lavin: It’s not just online. These people show up at all the public hearings too.
Griffin: It is a few. It is not a lot of people. At the public hearings I’ve been to you are talking (of) two or three folks. We’ve had hundreds of people write letters and testify in support of this project so I… at the end of the day people have a right to express their opinion and as long as they do that respectfully I think they ought to have their right to do that. So I think it is a big project with a lot of money at stake and as you mentioned it is an important one and I think people take it seriously and want to make sure it is done right. I do too. I live downtown. I am going too live with whatever we build for the rest of the time I am in Frederick. So I want to see it be good.
McGuire: you have been very involved in the Downtown Partnership and you were director of the Downtown Frederick Partnership? A lot of changeover of staff. Your position on Kara? And their role.
Griffin: they are considered to be one of the best Main Street programs anywhere in the country…. outstanding job, a great partner… we stand side by side with them because the work they do is critical. Their programming and their advocacy has been outstanding.
McGuire: FNP coverage?
Griffin: I’ve rarely had an quarrel with general courage of (City DED) projects… but on projects like the downtown hotel the media is always looking for something that has got an edge to it… The minute something looks salacious there is a bit of a jump to put a spin on that in a way that isn’t always fair to those people who have been working on the project for ever. But that being said it is part of the process.
McGuire: have we been fair or unfair in our coverage of the hotel project?
Griffin: There’s more room for continued coverage of it but certainly we believe in the project and think it will continue to be covered and we know there are detractors out there so long as that is the case I’m sure there’s going to be exciting days ahead for us, as we continue to move down the process. But all in all this has been a very transparent process. Your organization (Frederick News-Post) has probably written more articles about this project than anything else. Anyone who says they don’t have any knowledge of it or understanding of it simply hasn’t read the paper lately.
Lavin: I’d like you to name a story (about the hotel) that we’ve run that was salacious and not based on facts.
Griffin: it is not so much that they are not based off facts, but that there are times when… you are working on a very complicated project… there are times when no reporter walking into the room could understand all the complexities of a project and so there are times when maybe the question being asked seems like it is the right question but maybe it isn’t digging deep enough to figure reasons for why things are the way they are. It could also be for instance a non-required developer update that had no requirement to the community where they were providing good solid information about the archeology for the project but nothing of any substance from that meeting was included in the article. It only mentioned that people attending the meeting were disappointed that they had to write their questions down…. It would be alright if there was more substance than that.
Lavin: my response would be ‘We’ve written several very information-heavy articles about the historic preservation process, so what was discussed at that meeting not news.’ (pivoting to transparency) Public projects with public funding are supposed to be open, private projects (not so.) So with a public-private partnership my partner Danielle Gaines and I have run into sometimes we are trying to get information and (we’re told) it is (all) private and we can’t get that information. But then it seems to be public who you want to get public support for it.
Griffin: I guess the biggest question and where the challenge is… When you (reporters) are writing a story do you provide copies of a draft of that story to the public, or do you provide only the final (version) to the public? In any project there (are) multiple drafts of things, and it is a long conversation, so at any point in that process you are working on multiple iterations of it. And any time there is a decision to be made, or there is information that is solidified we bring that to the public (this is done) through public hearings, or workshops or whatever. In the intervening period if somebody asks a question and say ‘what about this; and ‘what about that’ I guess the question is is: ‘Do you provide every single draft of something. Do you provide every single thought you have in the process?’ We have tried very very hard and in more ways than one through the public hearing process, through the website, through media, through Facebook, social media to provide information out there to the public. So I would ask you: Do you provide the public all the early drafts of all of your work? The answer is No, because it is a draft. In the public sector you work with drafts too and when you are ready you say Here’s our process, here’s our thoughts, and this is why we are moving it forward the way we are.
Lavin: so you feel comfortable feeling that you as public partners controlling when information is released and made public.
Griffin: I’m not sure I quite understand the question but when there is good information to be brought forward, in other words when you have a budget that you want your Mayor & Board or your County Council to approve you bring it to them at that time but as you are working through the process and may have 12 different versions along the way you are not going to bring all 12 versions forward…
Analysis and comments in separate report: