Frederick’s Republican delegation to the Maryland General Assembly got an earful of criticism this week from an unusual source — the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce.
Generally speaking, Republicans and chambers of commerce go hand-in-glove on public policy. But here they are divided over the chamber’s number one issue in economic development — the downtown hotel and conference center.
At the chamber’s annual breakfast wrapping up the recently ended General Assembly session, GOP lawmakers were subjected to close questioning and sharply negative reviews, often by chamber members who described themselves as Republicans.
This is because the GOP lawmakers have continued to oppose spending state money to support the hotel project on Carroll Creek. And with four members, half of the county’s delegation, they have been able to block a legislative endorsement of the project.
All four Democratic lawmakers from the county support the proposal, but without a vote of support from the local delegation, it is extremely difficult to get funding.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, taking his cue from the local Republicans, has refused to release $5 million that was appropriated in 2018 for the project. And Democratic leaders of the General Assembly were reluctant to include more money in the budget if Hogan won’t allow it to be spent.
Chamber members may disagree with the Democrats on any number of other issues, but their support for the hotel project was clear. Several members spoke in favor of it, and after one audience member called on the GOP lawmakers to change their position, the applause was loud and sustained.
Two new Republican delegates who were elected last fall — Jesse Pippy and Dan Cox, both of District 4 — said they were skeptical about the use of public money for the project but indicated to the chamber members that they were still listening on the issue.
The other two Republicans from District 4, Del. Barrie Ciliberti (R-District 4) and Sen. Michael Hough, both have long been opposed to any state funding. Ciliberti said once again he is not opposed to the hotel but does not want any public money to support it.
Hough, who had to leave the meeting early, did not address the issue at the breakfast, but he has consistently opposed it. Last December, he told The News-Post:
“The state government shouldn’t be in the business of funding the construction of privately owned and operated hotels. It’s the job of privately owned and operated hotels to operate their own hotels.”
The Democrats, led by Sen. Ron Young, Dist. 3, argued that the agreement between the city and the developer has been clarified and improved, and that the state money will only be spent on infrastructure improvements that will help development in the city.
Chamber CEO and President Rick Weldon said he attended his first meeting where a downtown hotel was discussed 26 years ago, and it was long past time for the project to move forward. Summing up the meeting, he said the chamber is committed to the project, and it will be lobbying Hogan to release the money already approved.
We have said many times that the hotel project is vital to insure the future of downtown Frederick, and that it will promote the economic health of the entire region. The state of Maryland has been helping to pay for development projects for many years in other counties, and this should be no different. Public-private partnerships are the way major developments are almost always done in urban areas.
The easiest way for this project to get back on track would be for Pippy and Cox to heed the call of the local business community and decide to endorse this project. That would break the logjam in the delegation, and Hogan would presumably agree to release the money.
Failing that, we would like to remind the governor that he was re-elected last fall with the votes of a lot of Democrats in this state and indeed in this county. He promised to govern in a bipartisan manner.
When Weldon and other local business leaders come calling, he should remember that. Giving a few GOP lawmakers a veto over this popular project violates the spirit of his pledge. He should accede to the actions of the General Assembly and the wishes of the city of Frederick and get this money moving.