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Consultant keeps eyes on prize in downtown project

By Judy A. Strausbaugh
Sunday News
Published: Sep 03, 2005 11:55 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - This summer, the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority realized it was time to call in an outside expert.

With the $134 million Marriott Hotel and convention center project nearing a start date, Maurice D. Walker joined the team.

Walker, a native of Baltimore, is on loan, so to speak. He is employed by Bulls Advisory Group LLC of Bowie, Md., whose consulting services the authority has been using for some time.

A few months ago, Herman Bulls, president of the group, suggested sending Walker to guide the authority through the next “critical” phase of the hotel/convention center project, said David Hixson, executive director of the authority, in statement issued in June.

Last month, the authority gave the go-ahead for demolition plans to be drawn up for the buildings that sit behind the Watt & Shand façade at Penn Square. The plans are a major step toward the planned ground-breaking in December.

The convention center authority is the first consulting assignment for Walker, 43, who joined Bulls Advisory Group in May. Walker has a background in construction management and financing.

He has a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University and a master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School.

Soft-spoken and careful, Walker said he is focused on the construction phase of the hotel/convention center project. During its eight years of fits and starts, the controversial project has gouged some deep wounds, but Walker brings “fresh eyes” to the project, he said.

“I can envision the grand prize,” he said. Regardless of what the public perception might be, “this project has tremendous momentum,” he said.

Walker said he is the right man for the job because he “understands the various sensitivities” stimulated by the project.

And they are myriad.

They include: the use of millions of dollars in public money to help support a partnership with a privately owned hotel business; school district funding needs; city government’s guarantee of using taxpayer dollars to fund any delinquent loan payments and new real estate tax levies; property owners and developers eager to see a substantial return on their investments; and the minority business community’s dissatisfaction with current efforts to include black-, Latino- and women-owned enterprises in the project’s planning stage.

Walker’s assignment is to focus on the tangible aspects of the project so Hixson can spend more time promoting the project to the community. “He needs to promote the transformation that could happen to downtown at its core,” said Walker.

Bulls Advisory Group also appears to be a prescribed remedy to what ails the project. The firm specializes in public-private real estate development and lists among its clients the University of Pennsylvania, instigator of major economic and community development initiatives in northwest Philadelphia.

John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College and a member of the Lancaster County Convention Center Authority Board, previously served in the administration of University of Pennsylvania and led the University of Pennsylvania’s interest in that project.

Sitting next to a bank of windows that overlook Penn Square to the northeast, Walker said becoming a real estate development consultant isn’t what he originally intended for himself.

More than 20 years ago, he was interested in using his electrical engineering skills to find ways to help business become more efficient through the use of computer technology.

But he took a different tack and in 1985 graduated with his master’s in business administration.

“I recognized early on that I wanted to be where the decisions were made,” said Walker.

When he first came on board at the convention center authority, Walker said, he listened and tried to understand those involved and their levels of influence. “I did it in an effort to decide how to get things done, how to move toward opening day,” he said.

The local participants in the project bring their own passions, but Walker’s objectivity enables him to guide them to “look out for the best interests of the community,” he said.

One of Walker’s first meetings in Lancaster was with Al Taylor and Fred Clark, black lawyers who were charged by the authority to help craft its minority and women participation plan.

But first things first, said Walker. “The authority is focused on design development and on various aspects of the cost,” he said. He doesn’t want to minimize the importance of minority involvement in the project, but “we have to determine that you first have a project.”

“Then, from the authority’s standpoint, we can get to the issue of inclusiveness,” he said.

Walker notes that Bulls Advisory Group is a registered minority business. “Herman Bulls is a pre-eminent authority on public-private partnerships, and is uniquely qualified to work on this project.”

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