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Bottle Taxes, Convention Centers and Misplaced Priorities

May 16, 2012

The Baltimore Business Journal reports that more than 35 percent of the private financing needed for a proposed $500 million, 18,500-seat downtown arena and hotel has been raised. I suppose that’s exciting news and deserves some level of applause. But it’s rather disappointing–albeit not surprising–that the local business community has so fervently supported this new development while staying relatively silent on the tragic conditions of the city’s public schools that requires an estimated $2.8 billion in repairs and renovations.

Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. CEO Willard Hackerman has even offered to partially cover the cost of the development project if public funds are used toward a $300 million convention center expansion. The state has already approved $2.5 million in design money for this expansion. But while groups like the Greater Baltimore Committee push for $300 million in public funds for the convention center, students, parents and education advocates are left with a bottle tax that might allow the city to leverage $155 for school repairs. Emphasis on might. And gambling.

Aside from the fact that there is little economic justification for city’s to continue relying on big projects like convention centers, stadiums and malls to spur development, the city has far greater needs for its public funds. Like renovating schools. After all, public education is a significant economic development issue, something that seems to elude proponents for an expanded convention center, new arena and another downtown hotel.

The current arena needs to be replaced, but as Hugh Bethell, a parent of city public school children wrote in an op-ed to the Baltimore Business Journal, the Mayor’s plan to draw in 10,000 new families doesn’t stand a chance without strong public schools. It’s an observation that continues to be lost on too many business leaders.

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