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Monday, January 16, 2012

City of Frederick Hotel – What’s The Rush?

George Wenschhof

The idea for a hotel and convention center located in downtown Frederick is hardly a new one and actually dates back over thirty years to the days when Democrat Ron Young was mayor of The City of Frederick, Maryland.

Today, the absence of coordination and defined purpose for the project put forth by City of Frederick Republican Mayor Randy McClement threatens to derail a potential crown jewel project. This project could serve as an anchor, alongside the bustling Carroll Creek development, further strengthening an already vibrant downtown.

Muddying the future of a downtown hotel has been an unfortunate series of recent events ranging from a bungled request for a lobbyist, a signing of a poorly communicated memorandum of understanding and the floating of the idea of raising the hotel tax from three to five per cent.

Determining the feasibility, where to locate it and how to pay for it would all seem like reasonable steps to follow before proceeding haphazardly on a project of this magnitude.

After the feasibility of the project is determined, what is needed for a project of this significance is to hold open discussion on what role the city should take (partnership role and with whom, whether to purchase site, providing some level of funding, waiver of permitting fees, reduced taxes, etc.), allowing for public input, leading to consensus on the way to proceed.

A task force appointed by the mayor has done a lot of solid work, only to have its efforts soiled by these latest series of events.

The unsubstantiated request for a lobbyist by City of Frederick Republican mayor Randy McClement received intense public criticism, including from this writer, and according to several sources, the lobbyist has withdrawn his request, illustrating the inappropriateness of the request.

The rush to sign a memorandum of understanding, which took place at the last mayor and board meeting, left many wondering why this was needed now and what, if any, obligations were attached to it.

What followed, was the announcement by Democratic state delegate Galen Clagett (District 3-a) asking the Tourism Council of Frederick County to support his intention to file a bill to increase the hotel tax in Frederick County, raising an estimated $700,000 annually.

In a lengthy interview, Clagett informed me of his intention, saying he believed the city should own the land where the hotel would be built. He added he further believed future hotel tax funds received after the hotel site was paid, could be used for the construction of an aquatic center located in the recently acquired city park land, and a theater in the round on a portion of Carroll Creek.

All wonderful ideas, but apparently put forward without support. During a telephone interview with Democratic state senator Ron Young (District 3), he said ”asking county hotels to pay for competition against them does not make sense and he would not support it.” Young added he did not believe the other city delegate; Republican Pat Hogan would be in favor of raising the tax either, making it unlikely the county state delegation would support the idea.

Also, left out in the rush to push a raise in the county hotel tax were a discussion and a vote of approval by the mayor and board on the idea. Let’s not forget city voters may not like the idea of buying land for a hotel at a time when city coffers are strained.

Young said he strongly supports the construction of a downtown hotel and still believes a convention center would also work, but other funding sources need to be considered.

The updated feasibility study and the memorandum of understanding is needed to request a one million grant from the state stadium authority.

It would appear the board of directors of The Tourism Council would be wise to delay a vote of support on the increase of the Frederick County hotel tax.

The mayor’s executive assistant; Josh Russin explains the mayor wants to move forward on this project in this term and roughly spelled out the process the mayor wished to follow. Russin indicated the needed economic update of the feasibility study will be received in March.

Included in the process Russin sent me, was a Request For Information (RFI), which would be utilized to identify the land the hotel would be built on. Interested owners of appropriate parcels of land located downtown could submit their property for consideration. A “to be determined” rank and review criteria would be used by a city committee who would select the parcel.

Democratic Alderman Karen Young, who was the first to object to the hiring of a lobbyist, said she was concerned about the proposed site selection process, preferring a professional with specific hotel/convention center experience, be utilized to determine the optimum site. She suggested the consultant being used to update the feasibility study be considered to help identify the site, as they are experienced in this field.

She also stressed to me her support of the overall project.

The good news surrounding the concept of a downtown hotel is that much support exists. The Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Council of Frederick County are two significant organizations who have signaled overall support of the project.

What is needed now is for the mayor to slow the process down and take control of this project. Communicating more effectively with city voters and all parties involved is a must.

First, the update of the feasibility study needs to be received, reviewed and shared with the public. If, this shows the project is doable, the mayor should move forward with his board of alderman, the other stakeholders in this project and the public to determine what role the city will play.

Then, a reasonable timeline to implement the project should be developed.

A project of this size is sure to have lots of intrigue, ranging from politicos wanting to leave a legacy to property owners jockeying to have their site selected.

All the more reason the mayor needs to conduct the process with care and full transparency. This would help ensure a successful project with the greatest benefit for the city and its residents.

Speed is not the issue – doing it right is.

Stay Tuned….


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