Monday, June 1, 2009

Conventional Wisdom


This from the Scene:
Metro finance just revealed that budget projections won't be available until summer...of next year. In essence, we can't sell bonds at the current rate, so we're going to wait a while in hopes conditions will improve. In the meantime, we're going to lose XX amount of dollars in property taxes we could have been collecting on all that land we're going to own for the center we're not going to build all the while pushing back groundbreaking ad infinitum (more later on why this, again, is a terrible business practice).

This is stupid. Metro Council should just defer this bill indefinitely or whatever mumbo jumbo they do to make stupid things go away. We need that property tax revenue more than we need to be buying property for a convention center that may never happen.


We weren’t able to make it to yesterday’s convention center debate because we got stuck dealing with something related to our own construction project at home. But I’ve followed the coverage in local blogs and in the papers (The Scene, in particular, did a really interesting look at the CVB’s arguments for and the counter-arguments against the project.)

Trust me, I’d love to build a $600 million showpiece here in Nashville--lord knows there are plenty of tradesmen around here who could use the work. But we live in an era of budget cuts and a citizenry opposed to tax increases. Kudos to Mayor Dean for not cutting the schools budget, but with revenues down, choices must be made, like cuts in library hours, cuts in community center hours, cuts in grass mowing and other maintenance. Meanwhile, sidewalk construction projects have been shelved, Metro General is facing its own budget woes, the city is perennially short of low-income housing and services for the homeless, and the staff at Metro Social Services are, as usual, over-extended.

This just doesn’t seem like the best time to be sinking $600 million into a new convention center when there is such a great need in other areas. If it were me, I’d rather see that money go toward fixing some of our other problems in the city before we start investing in more concrete tourist palaces of dubious economic benefit.

My concern is that declines in the convention business are part of a larger trend, and not merely related to the current economic recession. That is the argument made by Heywood Sanders, who spoke at yesterday’s meeting, in his 2005 report for the Brookings Institution:

Moreover this decline began prior to the disruptions of 9-11 and is exacerbated by advances in communications technology. Currently, overall attendance at the 200 largest tradeshow events languishes at 1993 levels.

We already have a pretty nice convention center, and the CVB’s argument is that we’ve outgrown it. But if convention business is retreating in response to trends beyond the temporal economic ones, then we’d be pretty wise to stick with what we’ve got.

The problem is, the CVB is the last place you’ll find any candid discussion of the strength of the convention business. The day CVB president Butch Spyridon admits that the convention industry as a whole is a relic of the 20th century is the day he signs his unemployment check. I don’t mean to pick in Spyridon here, but that’s just a reality of what jobs like his require. Spyridon and folks like him are in the booster business (I wrote about this last year when I made fun of the rose-colored glasses worn by the Greater Nashville Assn. of Realtors.) And good for them. But when it comes to spending $600 million, maybe a few other viewpoints are warranted.

So right now I’m not inclined to trust what I’m hearing from the CVB or the Chamber. Both are starting to sound like a bunch of whiny little kids who were just told they can’t have an ice cream cone. Spyridon was kicking and screaming that Heywood Sanders was even allowed to speak yesterday:

"He was brought in to try to derail this project," Spyridon added. "There's no other reason for him to be here."

Can you say temper tantrum?

Or how about this:

Ralph Schulz, president and CEO of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, said after the debate that just one-third of those new visitors would be actual convention-goers; the rest would be people making return visits, bringing their families and attending corporate meetings and other events inspired by their convention experience.

WTF? You’re kidding, right? I’ve been to a gazillion conventions in my day and the only cities I’ve returned to for leisure were places I was going anyway: Los Angeles and New York, to visit friends and family both times. Yes, I loved my convention experience in San Antonio, but I’ve never been back. Mr. Beale and I had a great time in Puerto Rico, but we never returned there either. And I had such a horrid time in Orlando and Dallas that you couldn’t pay me enough money to return to either city. Sorry but it’s true.

But hey, that’s just me. I’m just wondering where they get these factoids, aside from the usual un-sunny place.

Anyway, I was inclined to give the convention center the benefit of the doubt but I haven’t liked what I’ve heard and I can’t help but think this is the wrong time to embark on a project of this kind, anyway.

And I don’t understand why the convention center has to be decided right now right this very second!!! Can we not put it off for a couple of years until the economy improves and we have a better idea of how much convention business there really is? What’s the rush?