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According to their figures, Positively Cleveland's six meetings will bring in 14,200 convention-goers over three years. In 2010, Positively Cleveland brought in many more attendees to Cleveland's former convention center — some 186 conferences and shows attracting nearly 150,000 people — on its own. But spokesmen for both Positively Cleveland and MMPI say that meeting planners are hesitant to book conventions before the building is finished.
"There seems to have been this almost whacky belief that if they built it, folks would inevitably come in very large numbers," says Heywood Sanders, a convention center expert and professor of public administration at the University of Texas in San Antonio. Sanders says the country suffers from a glut of expanding convention space that sits unused and is unprofitable.
"It was always clear there would never be the 50 medical conventions a year coming out of this thing," he says. "There is nowhere in the country that could do that. Now, Cleveland is faced with turning a convention center into maybe a continuing medical education center with no track record." Sanders considers this a daunting prospect.
But Casey remains undaunted, and he says the yet-to-be-revealed partnership between Cleveland Clinic, perhaps University Hospitals, and other well-known medical institutions will draw meetings to town — and the people will follow.
Even if such a partnership works, the educational offerings will have to attract medical professionals from throughout the country — not just the 200-mile radius Casey is targeting first — before the city can benefit from anything close to the $300 million a year promised, Sanders says.
"Most of the people in a 200-mile radius are likely to be the ones within a 50-mile radius, and they aren't likely to spend the night at all. They buy lunch and park."
Sanders maintains that any new convention facility is bound to fail in this economy, and that the med mart project will end up costing the county money, rather than making it.
"If they're not bringing in overnight visitors, they're not bringing in new dollars," he says. "They're essentially just rearranging debt tiers on the Titanic."
Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald says it's too early to worry. "With two years to go until its opening, it's not possible to predict how everything will turn out," he says in an e-mail statement. He adds that the county is monitoring MMPI's progress toward meeting its contractual obligations.
As Casey courts more regional visitors, his compatriots at Positively Cleveland are intent on bringing in overnighters.
"We do not use a 200-mile radius as a guide," David Gilbert, the group's president and CEO, tells Scene. "In fact, the majority of the business for which Positively Cleveland has booked is national in nature."
Filling up the med mart is moving along at a swifter pace for MMPI. Of 60 prospective tenants, 13 of MMPI's top educational picks have signed or are in the process of signing leases. Leases are also being signed or reviewed by 24 tenants that MMPI considers among the second-most-important for the new educational concept.
By all accounts, Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State are among the preferred tenants, and MMPI is giving them free rent — a move Sanders says is not surprising or unusual for convention center ventures across the country.
University Hospitals has confirmed it is finalizing details of a lease agreement, but will not comment on any educational collaboration until the lease is signed. Cleveland Clinic's continuing medical education division is on board, as is Cleveland Clinic Innovations.
"Cleveland Clinic's Innovations and Education offices have been in ongoing discussions with the leaders of the medical mart about programs and potential relationships that will be beneficial to the project," says Clinic spokeswoman Eileen Sheil. "We continue to be very supportive of the development of this, as we believe it is good for the city."
As for who the other tenants will be and how they will contribute to the educational theme, Casey isn't ready to say.
"In two or three months," he offers, "it will all make sense."