|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore
SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 6, 2007 --Baltimore's $302 million convention center hotel is halfway built, on schedule, on budget and already attracting new convention business, city officials said yesterday as they marked construction reaching the 20th and top floor.
The Hilton Baltimore Convention Center Hotel, which is owned and financed by the city, is on track to make Baltimore more competitive in capturing major convention business, tourism and hotel officials said.
"This has come a long way from a dream in our minds," M.J. "Jay" Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., said during a "topping out" event yesterday attended by city officials, representatives of hotel operator Hilton Hotels Corp. and construction company executives.
City officials have long justified the decision to finance and build the hotel, located across from Oriole Park at Camden Yards, by saying convention business suffered from not having a headquarters hotel. Critics of public ownership have argued that similar hotels around the country, many publicly financed, failed to meet rosy projections and that even those that succeeded failed to boost convention business.
Washington, which competes with Baltimore for convention business, also has struggled to draw conventions without a headquarters hotel and has faced years of delays in getting one built. Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty recently announced a new agreement with Marriott International to build a 1,150-room hotel west of the Washington Convention Center.
The 757-room Baltimore hotel will be handed over to Hilton on Aug. 9, Brodie said. The hotel staff would then begin training staff and readying the rooms for guests.
Reservations from convention and other groups are being taken from September 2008, said Linda T. Norman, the Baltimore Hilton's general manager. Convention groups have expressed interest in coming to Baltimore as far ahead as 2017, she said.
"The demand is definitely there," she said.
More than 85 groups have booked stays at the hotel for more than 150,000 room nights, said David Keys, Hilton's vice president for sales and marketing for the Northeast. The hotel started sales for convention groups about a year ago, he said.
Keys said a number of these groups decided to hold conventions in Baltimore because of the new hotel.
"Many of these groups could not have come to Baltimore without a convention hotel," Keys said.
Thomas J. Noonan, chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said city hotel room bookings by groups using the convention center has been increasing.
For the year ending June 2005, 265,000 room nights were booked for dates in the future, while for the year ending June 2006, 350,000 future room nights were booked. During the year ending this past June, 380,000 room nights for future dates were booked, he said.
Based on first-quarter bookings, he expects bookings for the year ending this June to be about 400,000 room nights. Medical groups seeking large blocks of rooms and large meeting spaces within a single hotel are now looking at the city, he said.
"That would not be possible without this hotel," Noonan said yesterday after the event.
Plans for the hotel were criticized because instead of being privately developed, the Hilton is being financed through the sale of $301.7 million worth of revenue bonds. The City Council held 28 hours of public hearings in 2005 before approving the plans.
Under the financing plan, net operating income from the hotel is being used to pay the debt service, and the city has pledged $7 million in annual city hotel occupancy tax receipts as a backup in case of a revenue shortfall.
Preliminary site work started in early 2006 by a team including Hensel Phelps Construction Co., Doracon Contracting and Banks Construction Co.
During yesterday's event, construction workers operated a tower crane to lift a flag-draped tree to the top of the building, a tradition that marks the topping off, or building to the top, of a structure.
"Hoist it up," shouted Mayor Sheila Dixon, after remarking, "I'm not going up with that."
Dixon called the project one of the city's most important, one that will bring in not only convention business but jobs for city residents.
"This project is an example of how we're moving forward," she said.
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