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Conventional wisdom urged on center

October 30, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

A convention center in Hagerstown could either boost the local economy by attracting tourists to the area or become a $9 million white elephant, local hotel officials said Wednesday.

"It will mean more sleeping rooms (reservations). That's OK for us," said Dinesh Patel, general manager of the Days Inn on Dual Highway.

But Jim Kell, general manager of the Ramada Inn on Dual Highway, said he doubted whether the area could attract the number of conventions and tourists needed to keep such a facility open year 'round.

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"I'm not saying it won't work. I'm saying it will be a very hard sell," Kell said.

Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday appointed a panel to look into the possibility of building by the year 2000 a $7 million to $9 million convention center that could accommodate up to 5,000 people.

The convention center would host gatherings too small for convention centers in metropolitan areas, but too large for existing local facilities to handle, said Kathleen Hynes, chairwoman of the review panel.

Hynes and some hotel officials said the center would boost the local lodging business. Even though it could include a hotel, the convention center facility would not be large enough to handle all of the conventioneers, she said.

"It's a good thing for the business. It will bring more people here," said Sam Patel, president of Jalaram Inc. in Martinsburg, W.Va., the company that is building a Comfort Suites hotel on Dual Highway. He is not related to Dinesh Patel.

Kell said a convention center would not compete with his convention business because the type of facility being discussed would be much larger than his hotel, which can accommodate 2,000 people.

"I think they will be going after the very big ones," he said.

That is also part of the problem, he said. Hagerstown would find itself competing with areas such as Ocean City, Md., which has the advantage of being a resort city, Kell said.

"The convention business just isn't that big here," he said.

But it could be, Hynes countered. She said she has heard from people who have expressed interest in their groups holding their conventions in Hagerstown, provided space was available.

As a model for the Hagerstown facility, she cited a $7.5 million convention center in Sharonville, Ohio, which was booked for three years before it opened its doors in 1995. Hynes said her research showed that just 12 percent of the facilities make money, but the profitable ones usually were the size of the one in Sharonville.

Hynes said bonds could be used to cover construction, and that money repaid from the increased revenue the center would generate from Washington County's 3 percent hotel room tax.

Hynes said she would not favor an increase in the room tax. Kell agreed.

"In New York, they have gotten these things (room taxes) so high that New Jersey loves it," he said.

In discussing the convention center, Kell mentioned the 1st Urban Fiber paper recycling plant, which opened amid hoopla last year but halted operations this year when market conditions turned sour.

"I would just hate to see another one of those," he said.

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