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Ineptitude may save Cleveland $290 million.

Joe Zion and James Glending are seriously screwed. Their job is to lure conventions to Cleveland.

Shocking as it may be, the Rust Belt isn't top-of-mind for most people planning four-day vacations that involve blowing off seminars, sneaking away for golf, and pounding enough liquor to become a walking toxicology study. Admit it: When's the last time you whined to the boss, "You promised the trade show would be in Buffalo this year"?

Yet Glending and Zion are also screwed by problems uniquely Cleveland's.

While the rest of the country spent the last few decades building ever-expanding convention centers, Cleveland's civic elite, by virtue of its Patented Brand of Incompetence™, never got past the yapping stage. Which means we're stuck with a 1933 hall that doesn't even have a loading dock, says Zion, vice president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Moreover, a city needs a hotel with at least 700 rooms just to compete; Cleveland tops out at 492.

Add to it our merry strain of politics. At one point, ex-Mayor White barred visitors bureau staff from even entering the convention center. "It's pretty difficult to do your job when you have to work under restraints like that," says Glending, head of the city-run facility.

All of which means that Cleveland isn't just losing out to Miami and Honolulu in the pursuit of drunken bankers packing dangerous credit card limits. We're even getting stomped by Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Cincinnati, which is like getting punched out by your grandma. Those cities have convention hall occupancy rates of 55 to 70 percent; ours is a meager 12.

At least on the surface, the convention business seems a sweet racket. Bring a few hundred strangers to town, empty their wallets, and everyone from cabbies to hookers scores. Which is why there's nary a public official in Cleveland -- or anywhere else -- who doesn't support a new center.

"There is not a city of any reasonable size that has not built, expanded, or planned for a new convention center," says Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who studies these things for a living. Listen to him long enough, however, and you walk away with only one conclusion: Damn near every city in America is run by morons.

Let's begin with the law of supply and demand, shall we? The expansion boom has created a 25 percent increase in convention space nationwide. Very swell, until you realize that the industry is flat, even declining. Has been for five years. Which means cities are racing to meet nonexistent demand.

Moreover, Sanders says, the industry is shifting to places like Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans. "They have large numbers of inexpensive hotel rooms, other amenities, relatively low costs for air access, and large volumes of convention center space."

So, for Cleveland to compete, it would not only have to build a new facility, expand the airport, and build a dozen large hotels; it would also have to buy a new climate and convince Disney to create the Magic Abandoned Steel Mill.

Civic boosters reply that Cleveland could still compete for regional and industrial shows. But we're already well behind Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Cincy for even this sparse business. Besides, other cities have already uncloaked this as a fool's chase: St. Louis is deeply subsidizing a 1,200-room hotel in hopes of gathering its crumbs.

Yet the crux of Sanders's studies is this: Large public works projects -- be they stadiums or convention centers -- have no effect on a metro economy, outside of spurring a nearby strip of bars and restaurants (see Gateway). "If we're spending between $500 million and $1 billion to get a restaurant or two," says Sanders, "it's not a good deal."

Cleveland's latest convention center proposal carries a $290 million price tag. If we're lucky, civic leaders will continue to squawk and sputter, and be too inept to get anything done. For once, may their incompetence work on our behalf.

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