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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Weir Wants More Public Input on Downtown Hotel

George Wenschhof

Jane Weir recently agreed to my request for an interview about her concerns about the proposed downtown hotel/conference center located along Carroll Creek in the historic district of The City of Frederick.

A quick and brief history of this project is the idea to have a hotel located in the historic district of The City of Frederick has been around for over 30 years.  In fact, it was during the time Maryland state senator Ron Young (D) was mayor, all those years ago, the thought to build a downtown hotel was discussed for the first time.  It was at this time Young would embrace the idea to build the downtown flood control project and develop the adjoining property similar to San Antonio’s acclaimed River Walk.

Decades later, with the flood control project mostly complete, development has finally begun to take place along Carroll Creek. There is currently a mix of residential and commercial buildings. As is the case of many commercial developments, which are subject to economic whims, there has been some turnover with opening and closings of restaurants since the buildings were first built.

Since being elected mayor, Mayor Randy McClement (R) made the building of a downtown hotel/conference center the signature project of his administration.  The idea of a hotel/convention center was scrapped years ago when it was realized the infrastructure was just not there and would be too difficult to create to provide support such a large venue.  Since that time, hotel/conference center has been used.

Mayor McClement has found the going tough as he has attempted to move this project forward. Four years ago, I published a column after the city aldermen had voted to approve a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) with the state stadium authority for the amount of $1 million toward the building of a downtown hotel/conference center.  A MOU is often used by municipalities to put forward a funding request to the state legislature.

At that time, there was no site selected, no builder identified and no agreement on what the city incentives would be, including who would own the land after the hotel/conference center was built.

In my column four years ago, Maryland state delegate Galen Clagett (D) would advocate for an increase in the hotel tax and for the city to own the land where the hotel would be built.

At that time, Ron Young, who is now a Maryland state senator told me “asking county hotels to pay for competition does not make sense to me and he would not support it.”  The hotel tax increase would not pass.

Today, the site has been identified, a developer identified and a new “Memorandum of Understanding” with the state stadium authority has been approved by the city aldermen. The project is now being billed a public/private venture with nearly 50% of the financing coming from government funding sources which includes a raise of the county hotel tax and the use of a tax incremental funding (T.I.F.) district for the project.

I asked Jane, who lives in Middletown with her husband, why she was raising questions about the proposed hotel/conference center when she doesn’t live here. I also asked her what first got her involved in interacting with government, adding I had often seen a personal experience get someone involved in advocating for or against something.

Jane said her first frustrating experience with government was with the approval over a year ago of the Valley School adjacent to the home where she and her husband live in Middletown.  Se told me by the time she was aware of what was happening, it was too late for her impact the approval. 

Jane said me she and her husband moved to Frederick County over 15 years ago and feels Frederick is beautiful, adding “it is what made us move here. In regard to her questions surrounding the proposed hotel/conference center she added “we pay county and state taxes that will go toward this”.

Jane would tell me she felt this would impact everyone including the small business owners in the historic district who make it so special.

She first became aware of the proposed hotel/conference center when she saw a rendering of the project on Facebook.  Jane told me “I was shocked and did not like it!”

Jane said she wrote a message to Frederick County executive Jan Gardner (D) on her Facebook page saying she was really concerned about this, adding “it is scary looking”.

Since then, Jane said she has had a frustrating experience dealing with elected officials and staff when she has tried to get information on the details of what is being proposed to be built and the Memorandum of Understanding recently agreed to by the city aldermen.

Jane said she had read a great book entitled “Convention Center Follies” written by Heywood T. Sanders where he debunks how convention centers will spur urban economic development. She had communicated with elected officials asking them to read this book and was discouraged when she did not receive a response.

Jane told me she would reach out to several people including Janice Wiles, former director of “Friends of Frederick County”, Kim Mellon, and Jack Lynch a former candidate for mayor and aldermen, to help her set up a Facebook page so she could get information out to the public.  She was concerned others would find out too late, just as she had in regard to the approval process for the Valley School next to her home.

When I informed her, the city must have had workshops on this subject prior to voting for approval, she said the workshops were during the day and questioned how many people could attend them.

When I asked her what she did not like about the project, Jane said “the location is bad, that out of the 6 potential sites I read about, this one is the least desirable”.  She would add she felt it was too close to the historic district, and the large imposing design would dominate the area. She is also concerned about potential of it being a toxic site and questioned whether taxpayers would be responsible to remediate the site.  In addition, Jane was concerned the outcome of structures on the proposed site, one of which had been used by for a Tannery.

I would conclude the interview by asking her “What would you like to see at this point?”  Jane said she would like to see the process slow down. She added “I would like to see a process where the general public in the city and county could have an open dialogue with a public question and answer forum”. 

Stay tuned.

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