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The Only Way Is Up… Right? The Rollercoaster Fortunes of Baltimore Convention Center

by Amadeus Finlay

It is often said that you have to hit rock bottom before you can rebuild, and in the case of the Baltimore Convention Center, it looks like that stony-faced time is nigh. In the most recent – and arguably most devastating – blow to the facility’s declining fortunes, the Natural Products Expo East has announced it will be relocating to Philadelphia after 2019. With the show goes $17 million dollars, including 16,000 overnight stays in the city’s hotel rooms, as well as the knock-on impact the loss will have on tax revenue.

In a statement to the Baltimore Business Journal, Adam Andersen, senior vice president of events for Natural Products Expo, explains, “We have outgrown the Baltimore Convention Center in its current state. Moving to Philadelphia allows us to increase our opportunity to grow our Natural Products Expo East exhibit space for the growing health and wellness market.”

A statement like that would knock the wind out of any convention center’s sails, but by the time the news was delivered back in August, Baltimore was already reeling from Otakon’s relocation to Washington, D.C., and more recently dealing with the news that Bronycon would be looking for a new host city after 2019.

It would seem that the obvious answer is a series of renovation works (and pronto), but upgrading the aging convention center is a costly proposition. In fact, the city has been in talks over expanding the BCC for years, but the expense of such a project has been a recurring obstacle to progress, with the price tag only increasing as time goes on.

According to the most recent study conducted by Maryland Stadium Authority, renovating the existing space and increasing it by an additional 400,000 sq.ft. could cost upwards of $600 million and take five and a half years to complete. It is a daunting proposition, but there is a glimmer of hope, and it comes in the shape of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh.

Baltimore is part of Pugh’s DNA. After moving to the city in the 1960s to attend Morgan State University, Pugh remained in Baltimore and founded a successful public relations firm, before becoming editor at the Baltimore Sun and dean of Strayer Business College. In 1999 she entered city politics, assuming the position of mayor in 2016.

It is this steadfast commitment to her adopted city that has driven Pugh to approach the situation at the BCC head-on (and with uncompromising expectations). In an official public statement, she comments, “We… know that to get more people here, especially more conventions and meeting groups here, we need to invest in our infrastructure. News of the Natural Products (Expo) being the latest group to be so successful here in Baltimore that they have outgrown us–we can’t afford for that to continue to happen.

“That’s why I was proud to task the Maryland Stadium Authority with continuing their study on the future of the Baltimore Convention Center, focusing in on architectural plans and cost estimates to bring the building up to where it needs to be. The way I see it, we really can’t afford not to do this.”

Following Pugh’s directive, the stadium authority’s board approved the launch of a second phase of expansion plans, with work on the $1.1 million report expected to begin this fall. Eager to get the pulse from someone on the inside, Exhibit City News was provided an exclusive statement from the executive director of the Baltimore Convention Center, Peggy Daidakis, “Our team is looking forward to working through the second phase of the expansion study for the Baltimore Convention Center being led by the Maryland Stadium Authority.  The Baltimore Convention Center is currently the smallest and oldest facility in our competitive set and the need for expansion is imperative. The current part of the study examines possibilities of the physical space and the costs associated with the design creation.”

We are encouraged that Mayor Catherine Pugh, the City of Baltimore and The Maryland Stadium Authority understand the importance of the contribution that the Convention Center makes to our region. We hope that an expansion/renovation will help spur growth and ensure our continued success in the Mid-Atlantic market.”

The BCC is a story of catastrophe, courage and hope, a modern-day Shakespearean drama of the convention and event space; you know we will be keeping an eye on Baltimore over the coming months.

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