The City-sponsored downtown hotel project has always depended on state financing. The City and the County can spring for $5m or perhaps $10m with tax increment bonds, but local taxpayers won’t stand for more. Local government can’t make up for the $20m+ proponents expected from the state. The City’s support for the project, and the county’s support, has always been grounded in confidence that the bulk of the $31m of upfront taxpayer subsidy was coming from Annapolis.
So what if state funding doesn’t happen?
A strong possibility is that Pete Plamondon (family company Plamondon Hospitality Partners) will go it alone.
This would have many advantages.
For a start he’d be able to design the hotel he wants instead of the hotel
hashed out by City officials and their friends at the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Partnership etc and written into the City’s RFP #14J. This bunch of amateurs, none of whom were putting down any of their own money wrote hotel specifications that make no commercial sense according to people who know the hotel business.
The hotel as specified is way too big for the market as a starter facility, they say. And it is too big for the site. Plus most of its ‘full service’ features are redundant in the downtown setting.
Free from the ill-conceived contract (MOU) with the City, Plamondon could downsize his hotel to better fit the site. Within easy, pleasant walking distance are almost every kind of eating and drinking place any visitor could want, the downtown hotel doesn’t need multiple restaurants, lounges and bars of its own — as required by the City contract. People won’t cancel a stay in Frederick because the downtown hotel has dropped the city-required indoor swimming pool or spa. These frills just add to the expense and the risk of the project. 25,000 square feet of conference rooms, one with space for 600-person events, will likely lose money. And take business away from the Weinberg Center.
Historic preservation issues misjudged
The City’s ‘hotel team’ and consultants seriously under-rated the historic preservation issues at the site, and naively thought they could get agreement
to demolish the Birely tannery building. That building is now declared Eligible for the National Register of Historic Places by the state’s lead preservation agency, Maryland Historical Trust. Any agreement with MHT on its demolition is, at minimum, going to be very expensive in time and money. It may be impossible.
It’s state money that gives the MHT jurisdiction over the project, so without state money the agreement of the MHT is no longer needed. Of course the City’s Historic Preservation Commission is no pushover on the Birely Tannery either. Another major issue for the City HPC is the scale and mass of the proposed hotel and its ‘compatibility’ with its neighbors. Scaling the hotel down, reducing the room count to say 100 rooms maximum and the meeting space to 10,000sf, and dropping the other City-specified frills would make it easier to spare the tannery building and to satisfy the HPC that the building is not out of scale.
Many of the same considerations apply at the City Planning Commission which has to consider impacts on parking and traffic. Downsizing makes it easier to satisfy the City planners and neighbors it won’t cause terrible congestion. Some East 2nd St and East Church St residents are probably going to oppose a downsized hotel in public hearings of the historic and planning commissions, but that opposition will be more narrowly based and less passionate if the project has been seriously downsized and the frills and the state funding done away with.
So what’s the downside?
Going it alone would forfeit taxpayer funding of the conference center, the car parking and the land. Conferences are a glutted market, that few make money out of. A heavily downsized hotel, a floor of rooms lower and without 600-person events can probably provide enough car parking in the basement of the building.
It might not qualify for the Marriott branding that is part of the City contract. So what? It might be a more distinctive, interesting hotel without the Marriott brand.
For the residents of downtown a self-financed hotel would be a much better outcome. The City-sponsored hotel with $31 million of taxpayer money upfront and on-going taxpayer obligations has always looked like a crooked City-endorsed monopoly, sure to discourage investment in other lodging.
Self-financed Plamondon’s hotel would be fair competition.