In a livelier than usual Chamber of Commerce legislative wrap-up breakfast Wednesday, Chamber members criticized Republicans in the local delegation for not backing the downtown hotel project.
After Frederick County's delegates and senators each received time to answer questions about issues like minimum wage and the Interstate 270 expansion, and a few minutes to tout their achievements this session, chamber members chimed in to harp on the delegation's biggest failure: Not moving the downtown hotel and conference center project forward.
And the Chamber, which leans conservative on most issues of policy, made no bones about who's to blame for the project being held up: the Republicans.
Jonathan Warner, of Warner Commercial, who's a Republican, asked the delegation what it would take to get the other Republicans on board with the project and to get Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to put the project on the Board of Public Works agenda.
Steve Heine, president and CEO of Woodsboro Bank, added that he too is a Republican, and the matter of the hotel project is turning a nonpartisan issue into a partisan one. Those in opposition to the project seem to be blinded by the strong economic state of Frederick at the moment, but the hotel would be an economic anchor for the city if and when a recession hits, Heine said.
"I can't remember a crowd bursting out in applause and support at one of those events," said Pete Plamondon, co-president of Plamondon Hospitality Partners, which would own and operate the hotel. "It was such a visceral reaction, and I think that shows the passion and support for the project. I'm really thankful others spoke up for it."
Republicans responded to the criticism by digging themselves a hole deep enough to lay the foundation for the multi-million dollar public parking garage the city plans to own and operate underneath the hotel.
All of them "support the hotel," they said. Del. Jesse Pippy (R-Frederick and Carroll) called the project "neat." Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R-Frederick and Carroll) and Del. Dan Cox (R-Frederick and Carroll) both called it a fine project. Pippy and Cox, who both are freshman delegates, said they needed to do more research on the project and hear all sides.
Given the near unanimity of the Chamber's members in support of the project, it might be a while before they hear "the other side."
Sen. Michael Hough (R-Frederick and Carroll) had to leave the legislative breakfast early for work, but he has been a staunch opponent to giving state funds to the project.
Ciliberti invoked troubled hotel projects in other jurisdictions like Rocky Gap that received state funding, and said he wouldn't let that happen again. Sen. Ron Young (D-Frederick) added the hotels about which Ciliberti spoke all received funds, whereas all state funds for the Frederick project go to infrastructure (read: a parking garage) to support the hotel.
Ciliberti later said he would "sit down with the senator," and the two would figure who has the right facts.
Cox later said he didn't understand why the fate of the project rested on a freshman delegate's shoulders. He raised concerns that if the hotel and conference center were to fail, which studies have indicated it won't, then the city would turn the building into offices.
Several members in the audience argued that Cox's assertion was incorrect.
"There's so much misinformation out there and the people opposed don't have the facts as they are," Plamondon said Thursday. "I'm not sure where some of this misinformation is coming from. If this project fails, and it won't, but if it does, you're talking to the guy who's going to have the worst day if it fails. I'm the one taking the biggest risk. But we've done our homework."
Plamondon was not discouraged by the discourse Wednesday, but rather energized and said he plans to continue engaging delegation members to continue educating them.
Even with all of the support throughout the city, there might be some valid reasons to oppose the downtown hotel and conference center. Perhaps there will be a major traffic increase on already crowded roads. Maybe it will increase property values in a city that already struggles to provide affordable housing. Conceivably, there's a better use for $5 million in downtown Frederick, such as providing shelter for a growing homeless population.
But Wednesday served as a fairly clear indicator that after 90 days in Annapolis and another month back in their districts, the same Republicans holding up the project haven't yet found their valid reason for doing so.
Rick Weldon, President and CEO of the Chamber, gave perhaps the most impassioned speech of the morning, advocating that the hotel project would get done, and the funds would be secured. He touted the chamber's strength in numbers and said they would go around the lobbyists blocking the project and the Republican delegation members standing in the way and find a way to get the public infrastructure money released.
While the crowd of chamber members erupted in applause, three people, all at the front of the room, sat quietly.