Convention Center Follies

Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities

Heywood T. Sanders
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 592
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  • Book Info
    Convention Center Follies
    Book Description:

    American cities have experienced a remarkable surge in convention center development over the last two decades, with exhibit hall space growing from 40 million square feet in 1990 to 70 million in 2011-an increase of almost 75 percent. Proponents of these projects promised new jobs, new private development, and new tax revenues. Yet even as cities from Boston and Orlando to Phoenix and Seattle have invested in more convention center space, the return on that investment has proven limited and elusive. Why, then, do cities keep building them?Written by one of the nation's foremost urban development experts,Convention Center Folliesexposes the forces behind convention center development and the revolution in local government finance that has privileged convention centers over alternative public investments. Through wide-ranging examples from cities across the country as well as in-depth case studies of Chicago, Atlanta, and St. Louis, Heywood T. Sanders examines the genesis of center projects, the dealmaking, and the circular logic of convention center development. Using a robust set of archival resources-including internal minutes of business consultants and the personal papers of big city mayors-Sanders offers a systematic analysis of the consultant forecasts and promises that have sustained center development and the ways those forecasts have been manipulated and proven false. This record reveals that business leaders sought not community-wide economic benefit or growth but, rather, to reshape land values and development opportunities in the downtown core.A probing look at a so-called economic panacea,Convention Center Folliesdissects the inner workings of America's convention center boom and provides valuable lessons in urban government, local business growth, and civic redevelopment.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0930-3
    Subjects: Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Part I: The Race to Build
    • Chapter 1 Building Boom
      (pp. 3-41)

      In 1982, Chicago’s McCormick Place stood at the apex of the nation’s convention centers. With 825,000 square feet of exhibit space in the main facility and another 330,000 square feet in nearby Donnelly Hall, it easily surpassed the convention halls of other cities. It routinely hosted the largest collection of major conventions and tradeshows each year, with 24 of the nation’s 150 largest events in 1982 and 27 in 1983, “dominating over two- thirds of the 15 largest events.”¹ The list included such blockbuster events as the International Machine Tool Show with 97,000 attendees in 1983, the National Restaurant Association...

    • Chapter 2 Paying for the Box
      (pp. 42-84)

      The grand public convention halls of the 1920s and 1930s—Cleveland’s Public Auditorium, Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, St. Louis’s Kiel Auditorium—were built by city governments and financed by city governments with general obligation debt. Those debts were backed by the “full faith and credit” of a city government, effectively the full stock of property and other tax revenues available to the city. And under state laws in these states and the vast majority of others, general obligation debt had to be approved by a majority of the local electorate.

      Cleveland’s Public Auditorium was approved by the city’s voters in...

    • Chapter 3 Promises and Realities
      (pp. 85-123)

      Laying out a “long range” strategic plan for Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center in January 1990, consultant Charles H. Johnson described a vibrant and growing convention and tradeshow market. He noted that “facility space requirements have been growing at a rate of eight percent per year” and “Future growth is expected to continue.” He illustrated that finding with two charts, one depicting sharp upward growth in both tradeshow exhibit space use from 1971 to 1987 (8.66 percent) and attendance (6.47 percent), the other showing an even more dramatic upward slope, with annual increases in the size of Tradeshow “200” events...

    • Chapter 4 They Will Come . . . and Spend
      (pp. 124-149)

      “Economic impact” has long been the central justification for local public investment in new and expanded convention centers; it is the substance of endless consultant studies, mayoral and gubernatorial press conferences, and banner headlines in the local press. Build it, and more convention and tradeshow attendees will come to a city by the tens or hundreds of thousands. Those attendees will stay in local hotels for multiple nights, as well as spending their dollars for meals, entertainment, and retail purchases. The promise of that additional visitor spending is typically measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The 2003 forecast...

    • Chapter 5 Missing Impact
      (pp. 150-208)

      June Arney’s front page article in the June 2, 2002,Baltimore Sun, under the title “Baltimore Built It—They Didn’t Come,” brought home the striking gap between the predictions of a consulting firm, the promises of city and state officials, and the reality of convention center performance in a competitive market. Arney narrated the promises surrounding the expansion project: “bigger conventions than ever before, more people than ever before, more spending and tax revenue than ever before. In April 1997, the transformed center, with three times the exhibit space, opened. Officials waited for the people to come.”

      What of the...

  5. Part II: From Economics to Politics
    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 209-210)

      The contemporary boom in convention center building has its roots in the post-World War II efforts by cities to redevelop, renew, and revitalize their downtown cores and inner cities. Some cities sought to build a civic auditorium or convention hall that had long been blocked by political conflict or voter disapproval. Others sought to burnish their economic competitiveness or central role. For others, the initiative to construct a new convention facility began as an effort to reposition an underused railroad station or boost the prospects for new private development and investment.

      The case studies that follow, of Chicago, Atlanta, and...

    • Chapter 6 Chicago: Bolstering the Business District
      (pp. 211-259)

      When Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center opened in November 1960 as the “world’s greatest meeting place,” it represented a triumph over some 50 years of debate, conflict, and public failure. Chicago business and civic leaders had begun to promote a major new auditorium or convention hall in the 1910s, as other cities began to build their own impressive new facilities. In the 1920s, Col. Robert McCormick’sChicago Tribunehad embraced the quest, with the regular editorial call to “Build Chicago the best convention hall in America.”¹

      With a location on a prominent lakefront site some three miles from the heart...

    • Chapter 7 Atlanta: Enhancing Property Values
      (pp. 260-340)

      Atlanta’s development of a modern convention facility in the 1960s came at the political intersection of two broad development efforts. The first initiative sought to boost the city’s hotel and hospitality business and cement the city’s role as a regional center by attracting a growing volume of convention and meeting activity, with a focus on the development of the downtown core. The second was overtly spatial—intended to alter land use patterns and reshape private development opportunities in and around the downtown core. In seeking to shape development patterns, the city’s business and civic leaders were acutely aware of the...

    • Chapter 8 St. Louis: Protection from Erosion
      (pp. 341-429)

      Writing to St. Louis Mayor A. J. Cervantes in March 1966, architect Arthur Schwarz announced, “our studies in connection with Union Station were looking ‘mighty good.’” Schwarz told Cervantes that his firm was making “a reasonably comprehensive study of convention centers, sports centers, merchandise marts and convention hotels throughout the country,” and that “I am convinced more than ever that St. Louis has to move forward in these areas in a large way if we are to take advantage of the potentials of tourism and convention business. As I see it, there is no reason why St. Louis cannot attain...

  6. Conclusion: The Cities Business Builds
    (pp. 430-452)

    The contemporary boom in convention center building has been fueled and sustained by two substantive changes in local politics and finance. First, local public investment finance has been reshaped and reformed over the last three decades, structured to avoid any direct public votes or control over the commitment of millions in state and local debt, and tied to largely “invisible” or seemingly free revenue streams, from visitor-based taxes on things like hotel rooms, car rentals, and restaurant meals. State governments have also come to play a central role in financing convention center development and expansions, bypassing the political and fiscal...

  7. Note on Sources
    (pp. 453-456)
  8. Notes
    (pp. 457-500)
  9. Index
    (pp. 501-512)
  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 513-514)