Washington media magnate Robert L. Johnson and Quadrangle Development seek to build a 750-room Hilton hotel next to Baltimore's convention center, part of an effort to bring more visitors to an often-empty convention hall in that city.
The development would be part of Johnson's two-year-old foray into hotel investment. The founder of Black Entertainment Television founded RLJ Development LLC in December 2000 and has compiled a portfolio of 11 hotels around the country. Johnson, who sits on the board of Hilton Hotels Corp., said yesterday that he believes it is a choice time to buy and develop hotels, because interest rates are low and hotels are undervalued because of slow travel since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"There are some good properties on the market right now at good prices if you know how to pick them and negotiate," he said in an interview. He estimated that RLJ's portfolio of hotels, which includes Homewood Suites in the District and the Waterfront Courtyard Marriott in Baltimore, is worth $250 million.
The proposed convention center hotel would be managed by Hilton, but the company would not take any ownership stake, said spokeswoman Kathy Shepard. "We would just come on board as the managers if and when it's completed," she said. Johnson's partner, Quadrangle, has been building offices, hotels and apartments in the Washington region for three decades.
The Baltimore convention center had a major renovation and expansion completed in April 1997. But it has lacked a flagship hotel, and many large conventions it was built to accommodate have gone elsewhere. A 1998 plan by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos to build a Grand Hyatt hotel on the site ultimately fizzled. Johnson said things will go differently this time.
"There's activity going on in Baltimore," he said. "A lot of stuff is happening. I think it's the right time for this hotel."
The proposal is still in early stages and faces several hurdles. But some people involved with development in Baltimore said it represents the most promising news to date in a long saga to obtain a convention center hotel on one of the open-air parking lots that are abundant around the Camden Yards ballpark.
"A lot of groups have been passing us up because we didn't have a headquarters hotel," said Nancy Hinds, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association. "This should bring more business to the entire west side of downtown."
"This can only be a good thing," said Rick Flosson, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority, which built both the convention center and Camden Yards.
The City of Baltimore owns the four-acre site where the developers want to build, and before the plans can proceed a bidding process must be held to see if any other development teams emerge. The site is located between the convention center and Camden Yards baseball park, in the area bounded by Pratt, Camden, Paca and Howard streets.
The proposal also includes a 200,000-square-foot office building that would be the headquarters of Catholic Relief Services, an international charity that Baltimore city leaders hope to keep downtown.
Assuming there are no competitors, the developers would seek public help for the project, said Johnson, although those details cannot be worked out until a deal is reached on the property.