In his first interview since two state agencies walked away from his MOU City project director Richard Griffin says that the hotel project can be built without state dollars. It would need to be ‘re-scoped’ but the hotel ‘team’ remains determined to go ahead, with or without state support. That’s the gist of the long interview he granted the Frederick News-Post in their new Frederick Uncut podcast this week.
We produced a full transcript of the interview — posted earlier.
Previously Griffin has said that state funding is essential to the hotel project. Indeed it was largely sold to city and county officials on the basis that majority upfront public subsidies were coming largely from the state, making minimal demands on local taxpayers. Griffin’s five party MOU draft provided for nearly 60 percent or $18.1m of $30.35m (other places rounded up to $31m) of total taxpayer money to come from the state, with $6.3m from the County, and $5.95m from the City. After the minority of the Frederick County delegation contrived the end-of-session end-run around the regular appropriations process in Annapolis in April project boosters held a celebratory event April 13 at which many spoke to how essential state funding was.
No more, it seems.
Richard Griffin in the Dec 6 podcast: “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 …”
‘Re-scope’ the new bureaucratese for downsizing
Asked by McGuire to spell out what he meant by re-scope, Griffin said: “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.”
All that is good news. A smaller hotel and a smaller conference center would make the project…well, not good, but… less bad. That’s progress!
— Less by way of upfront subsidy for this project would make it less unfair to competitors, and to taxpayers
— A smaller hotel would fit the site better and stand a better chance of gaining acceptance by the Historic Preservation Commission.
— Traffic impacts downtown would be reduced.
— There would be less need for onsite car parking.
— The Birely Tannery building could be preserved.
— Maybe the rooms don’t all need to be ‘de luxe,’ or ‘upscale,’ maybe some of them could be for regular folk in case the Chamber of Commerce can’t turn out enough upscale folks, the mix of hotel rooms making the hotel more attractive to a broader diversity of budgets.
— Some of the vaunted ‘four star’ features could be dropped — the indoor pool for example and other parts that no businessman would put his own money into, but which the City’s insider ‘Team’ thought it would be nice to have.
The more you think about nixing state funding the more the idea recommends itself!!!
But they haven’t given up the quest for state $s
Nancy Lavin posed the question, condensing her words a little: “So state funding has been… one of the big pieces that have caused some changes to the project as it stands already, you know two fiscal years ago… 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?”
Of course they haven’t given up on getting state funds.
Reminded of the Frederick Delegation head Kathy Afzali’s assessment that state support for the project is “dead” Griffin said: “…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.”
In truth Griffin can only work with three of the eight-strong delegation, five being opposed to any state funding of the hotel. And one of the three, Senator Ron Young, has been critical of the City’s unwillingness to step up and own the conference center, saying that unless the City is prepared to take that step the project is dead.
He forgets we have a state governor
Plus Griffin completely fails to acknowledge that the state governor has a role in the ‘process.’ Or the Board of Public Works. In the spring this year Mr Hogan declined to
veto the end-of-session bill containing conditional support for the Frederick hotel, but it shouldn’t be assumed, as Griffin seems to assume, that the Governor would just stand aside again to allow state money to flow. Hopefully he’ll be better informed about the project after hearing that two state agencies gave it the thumbs down.
Another piece of news: design work on the hotel is apparently held up lack of state funding. A favorite Griffinism is ‘continuing to move through the process’ used so often we need the abbreviation CTMTTP. Griffin said in the interview that the hotel partners would “continue to move through the process with Maryland Historical Trust and design as soon as we are able to access the dollars for design.”
Griffin engages in many of his trademark misdirections during the interview:
1. “Absolutely everyone that we have consulted with on this project has felt as though that a hotel downtown is very much needed.”
But a feeling that a downtown hotel is needed is not the same as feeling that we need a City Government-sponsored hotel, seven years now in the making, with a sham competed procurement, that caters exclusively to upscale customers, and is located on an awkward, small site, doesn’t fit the historic district, and ’needs’ $31m in upfront subsidies. Griffin and his City ’team’ have been actively discouraging all downtown hotel proposals except the City DED sponsored project for almost a decade.
2. “The downtown hotel project is a complex project, and as a complex project it takes time…”
But it is complex because Griffin and his Hotel Team have made it complex. They have constantly sought more ‘partners,’ some reluctant partners. And they deliberately chose a site that makes design complicated. Permitting too, they will find.
Building a hotel doesn’t have to be as “complex” as this. When the Francis Scott Key Hotel at the corner of Court and West Patrick streets was built in 1922 the three businessmen sponsoring it went from concept to opening in three years. They funded it with money from a public offering of shares so those citizens who believed in the hotel and voluntarily put their money on the line took the financial risk while standing to share the rewards of success. City officials were asked to attend the opening ceremonies.
3. “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…. (ALSO): We have a lot of resources that are committed already.”
But the City Board of Aldermen, and County councillors all agreed to an arrangement they were told was supported by two state agencies, Maryland Stadium Authority and MEDCO and involved their active participation and some $18m of state funds. Besides a 5-party agreement signed by only three parties doesn’t commit the three signing parties to anything at all.
4. “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.” ALSO: “It is a few (who oppose.) It is not a lot of people. At the public hearings I’ve been to you are talking two or three folks. We’ve had hundreds of people write letters and testify in support of this project.”
But Griffin has actively recruited coordinated ‘supporters’ to attend public meetings, allocating quotas of attendees to the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership, East Frederick Rising and the Tourism Council, then giving them canned Talking Points. The many City grant programs they administer give people an interest in responding to Griffin’s ‘supporter’ recruitment. They are more likely to receive grants and to gain permits if they are recognized as ‘good team players.’
It is true that there is almost no opposition to a downtown hotel as such. That’s because opponents of the City-sponsored hotel project want smaller, simpler self-financing hotels downtown.
The weight of comment in the Comments after news reports in the Frederick News-Post is strongly against public subsidization of a hotel. There are dueling Facebook pages but the FoFC Downtown Marriott Watch page opposed to the City project is the most active.
If only “a few” or “two or three” folks oppose the City project, as Griffin suggests, it seems unlikely eight out of 22 elected officials (City 6/0, Co 5/3, State 3/5) would be in opposition.
Griffin suggests he shouldn’t have to go public with drafts just as newspaper reporters only publish their finished work. It is a false analogy because government and publishing have different rules. In government officials tax, regulate and legislate and the law requires them to be more open than people in private enterprise who exercise none of the same coercive powers. Public information law recognizes that when an issue is being actively discussed or argued within government the records may be withheld by invoking “deliberative privilege.”
On the hotel project the City has misused that power claiming ‘deliberative privilege’ to keep secret reports and communications from as far back as 2013 and 2014, long after deliberations ended.
Griffin: “…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 fact the City has worked systematically to deny and delay inconvenient information about the hotel project — from the second Pinnacle report saying the planned conference center was too large, to the procurement ‘fix’ and to the Forella Report on escalating project costs, and disagreements over ownership of the conference center. The latest deception occurred during the effort in the fall to gain City and County support for the 5-party agreement, hearings held with never a hint of any concerns at state agencies let alone the possible pull-out that later occurred.