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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

WTF? Convention centers are the VHS of civic investment ideas

Posted By on Tue, Mar 25, 2008 at 3:02 PM

Commissioner Jimmy Dimora is investing $903 million in an industry that was down 40 percent before the depression. Fortunately, he's doing it with your money, not his.
In their ongoing quest to blowtorch your wallet, then stomp it to death while doing Cherokee war cries, Cuyahoga County commissioners may have fashioned their worst deal yet to build a new convention center/medical mart in Cleveland. In an ongoing series, Ace Reporter Lisa Rab breaks down the absurdity of the deal for those of you scoring at home: Cleveland’s civic leaders, not being the most well-read bunch, have long been jonesing for a new convention center and medical mart as the miracle cure for the city’s economy. They envision thousands of people being shuttled from Hopkins to Tower City, sleeping a the Ritz, dining in our restaurants, and unloading monster coin in our fine selection of gentlemen’s clubs… According to the Chicago company that will run our fabulous new joint, the project is supposed to bring in 50 medical trade shows a year, “generating in excess of $300 million in annual economic impact.” There’s just one problem. That kind of thinking is sooo 1993. According to pretty much any independent study you read, convention centers have been failing propositions for more than a decade. They’re usually sold with some wonderfully fabricated revenue estimates like the one that appears above. But since the convention business has been doing a swan dive for years, residents soon discover they paid hundreds of millions for the privilege of owning a white elephant. According to a 2005 Brookings Institute study: “While the supply of exhibit space in the United States has expanded steadily, the demand for convention and tradeshow exhibit space, and the attendees these events and space bring to a city, has actually plummeted. Many cities have seen their convention attendance fall by 40 percent, 50 percent, and more since the peak years of the late 1990s.” That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: We’re about to invest $903 million in an industry that was already down 40 percent before the depression! In other words, these things haven’t been a good bet since The New Kids on the Block went platinum. And if you don’t believe the Brookings Institute, here are two other studies by Economic Development Quarterly and the urban-policy magazine City Journal that come to the same conclusion. The upside is that when the conventioneers don’t show, we’ll have plenty of unused space to house the overflow from homeless shelters. --Lisa Rab

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