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Posts Tagged ‘MTCVB’

15th July
written by clothcutter

Top tourism award goes to Yuma Lettuce Days
Yuma Lettuce Days is now truly the cream of the crop.

The longtime Yuma event, transformed this year to reflect Yuma’s agricultural roots, was chosen as Arizona’s best special event for 2010-11 and honored with the Governor’s Tourism Award Thursday during a ceremony in Scottsdale.

Yuma Lettuce Days now rubs elbows with past winners such as the NBA All-Star Game, Cactus League Baseball and the Fiesta Bowl Festival of College Football.

The award was accepted by Susan Sternitzke and Kristan Sheppeard of the Yuma Visitors Bureau, organizer of the 2011 Lettuce Days 2011, from Sherry Henry, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism, at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

Wow what an unbelievable honor, said Sheppeard, who as director of YVB’s new agritourism division took the lead in Lettuce Days planning and execution.

We’re just thrilled, said Sternitzke, YVB executive director. Yuma earned so much positive media and recognition in the last year. We’re looking at this as just the first salvo of new attention and recognition of what we have to offer.

Yuma Lettuce Days was chosen out of a statewide pool of competitors in the Urban category. The festival competed against events held in other areas with a population of 75,000 or more, including those in metro Phoenix and Tucson.

Though we knew we were among the finalists, when I looked at the list of past winners in the program at lunch, I figured we didn’t really have a chance, Sheppeard said.

This is just amazing, especially considering all the great events that take place every year across Arizona.

Sheppeard attributed the success to the shift of Lettuce Days away from just being just another arts and crafts fair, and back to focusing on Yuma’s agriculture.

All the changes we made to Yuma Lettuce Days this year were intended to give it a new and distinct identity ” I guess this award is evidence that we achieved that and took it to a new level in terms of attracting people from outside of Yuma and outside Arizona.

Plus, the strong support we got from Yuma agriculture community and the shippers and packers was really important.

Lettuce Days is expected to become a yearly tradition in its current form, Sheppeard added.

Our goal is to make Lettuce Days a signature event for our area, like the Garlic Festival is for Gilroy (Calif.). This award will give a big boost to our efforts to promote Lettuce Days as a great showcase for the whole Yuma area and our fantastic agriculture industry.

This event would not have been possible without both the ag community which includes growers, shippers, Yuma Safe Produce Council, Yuma Area Ag Council and really the entire industry ” and the amazing culinary experts, which includes all of the talented executive chefs that offered their culinary expertise for the entire festival.

Yuma was last honored with a Governor’s Tourism Award in 2009, when the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area earned the annual Arizona Preservation Award for its master plan redevelopment programs.

Sternitzke, Sheppeard and Ann Walker represented Yuma at the tourism conference, along with Tina Clark from the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area.

It’s been great, Sternitzke said. Everyone we talk to is giving such positive feedback, it’s nice to see that Yuma’s hard work is not going unnoticed.

28th March
written by clothcutter

From our friends at Inside Tucson Business:

“Underrated’ Tucson”

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2011 5:00 pm | Updated: 3:44 pm, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

“According to the editors of Travel + Leisure magazine, Tucson ranks among the most underrated destination in the world.

“It’s not just rodeos and golf courses,” according to the magazine, specifically noting the efforts to revive downtown with top-notch dining.

Other underrated destinations included Detroit; Nara, Japan; Bratislava, Slovakia; Galsgow, Scotland; and Taipei, Taiwan.”

This is not really good news, as the ITB puts it.  It means we have a great destination that no one really know about.  A big contention of whistleblowers at the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is that Mr. Walker has built up a army of employees at the expense of actually marketing the destination.

Preliminary findings of the Pima County Tourism Audit Commission are pointing to an % increase in payroll over the last several years(except the last year or so)  at the MTCVB.  Over the same period, there has been a % decrease in the actual marketing expenditures.  I am sure that the MTCVB’s Board Members who see this article might be encouraged, but they shouldn’t.

It’s time for a change at the the top of the MTCVB.  Mr. Walker and Mr. Vahaugn have worn out their welcome. After a decade of them and their rubberstamping boards of directors, they have achieved quite a goal:  Tucson is a best kept secret.  I am sure that makes all the business owners in Tucson who rely on the tourist dollar very happy.  This March is going to go down as possibly the worst March (tourism revenue)  in the last 20 years. It is time to find some new people with new ideas.

(Pictured:  The CVB Brass Enjoying a Cocktail in Scotland)

Maybe Bratislava looking for new arrogant 1-2 combo at the MBCVB.

3rd January
written by clothcutter

Tom Moulton is Pima County’s Director of  Economic Development and Tourism.  His annual salary tops $100k.

The county’s website states:

“The department of Economic Development and Tourism act as primary liaison with the business, academic and tourism community to enhance the economic well being of the region. It provides business development, marketing, training and revenue enhancement programs to Pima County’s leased asset partners (i.e. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Old Tucson Studios, Colossal Cave Mountain Park, Pima Air and Space Museum, Pima County Fairgrounds, and more.”

He is also the county’s expert and watchdog on the $2.6 million it spends on tourism promotion.  He is supposed to make sure the taxpayer dollar is being used wisely by the folks at the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau.  Last year, he made this marvelous statement about his job. (Love the hat, Mr. M!)

4th May
written by clothcutter

We have seen all the protests from the MTCVB and their hotel friends.  They have been at the Tucson City council meeting.  They are crying at Oro Valley Town meetings.  They have found gullible allies like the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce and the their “political expert” Lyra Done(arrgh!), who are setting up a royal dog and pony show for their membership on Thursday.  Other Allies include TREO(impressive), Downtown Partnership(even better) and the Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association(SALARA, I know another acronyn to keep track of, yeesh!). 

One thing that only a few of these folks know and that hasn’t been reported is that the MTCVB negotiated an increase in the city bed tax, without talking to the Tucson hotels!  Seeing that is budget was going to get a big cut from Tucson(last year over $4 million), CVB CEO Jonathon Walker met with Mr. Letcher and they came up with an extra $1 per night per room.  It sounds like a minute amount, but when meeting planners are bringing thousands of room nights for a conference, the dollars add up.  Mr Walker (and his staff of almost 60 employees!) have basically put the city hotels at distinct disadvantage to their competitors outside of the City.  He has especially screwed the recently opened Marriott at Starr Pass, which has the most rooms and survives on group business.  If a meeting planner with a 2000 room nights comes to town, it will cost them $2000.00 more to do it at Starr Pass than at Ventana or La Paloma.  Thanks, Starr Pass for your investment in Tucson, now we will make the now-tough hotel business even tougher for you and your hundreds of employees.

It’s another example of MTCVB watching out for themselves and not their members.  Which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

24th April
written by Arizona Kid

I guess the City council got their man in Mike Letcher. From Carli Brosseau’s article in the Citizen yesterday.

Job Path is the darling of the Pima County Interfaith Council. Their results are great but the number of people they actually impact is pretty small. We’ll have to dig into the details a bit but the figures we’ve heard were that it’s a couple million dollar program and ‘retrains’ only 80 or so people a year. PCIC has been buying radio ads touting their importance to the community. I guess that’s what you call a full court press during difficult budgetary times. Looks like it worked.

Looks like TREO and the MTCVB are still safe. In fact our tourism agency got a $900,000 raise. Looks like MTCV can finally bring on the assistant to the vice presidents’s executive assistance who is in charge of special projects, sustainability (great buzz word that looks important) and good governance.

The $3 million difference, to be paid for by proposed new taxes, would be divided primarily among Job Path, the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, School Plus Jobs and the Tucson Pima Arts Council.

Under the previous plan, Job Path, School Plus Jobs and the arts council would have received nothing.

Letcher wants to give the visitors bureau $4.2 million with about $900,000 of that added in by Letcher, the largest allocation set for any organization.

30th January
written by clothcutter

I saw this article recently on the Orlando Sentinel site:
We think: Orlando’s tourism bureau needs to open up on spending.

January 29, 2009
The folks running Orlando’s tourism bureau have an identity crisis.

They fancy themselves as a mostly private enterprise able to control public information as they would water from a spigot. Yet they don’t mind taking millions of public dollars, which demands a higher standard of accountability.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that conflicts keep surfacing. Those conflicts not only erode public trust, they ratchet up the demand for greater transparency.

Case in point: giving a former top executive an extra year of salary on top of a pre-existing retirement package. The salary perk added as much as $310,000 to an exit package that became worth nearly $750,000 to Bill Peeper, former president of Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Even if the separation package were common for the industry, CVB officials still have a lot of explaining to do.

For starters, the package was never approved by the bureau’s full board of directors. A small group of directors negotiated the deal, as required under the CVB’s bylaws.

That keeps a lot of folks out of the loop, including Orange County commissioners. They’ve entrusted the CVB with millions of public dollars from tourist-tax revenues — almost $100 million over the past two years. “It doesn’t sit well with me,” said Commissioner Bill Segal.

It shouldn’t with anyone else, either. The CVB has been way too secretive about the way it does business, despite a number of dust-ups during the past few months, starting with a business-class ticket to Dubai that cost the agency $9,271.47 — seven times more expensive than a coach ticket. It was only after that story was disclosed in the Sentinel that the CVB agreed to consider changing its travel policy so cheaper tickets could be purchased.

Regarding the deal with Mr. Peeper, a CVB official explained that Mr. Peeper was a “superstar,” and the bureau didn’t want him going to a competitor.

What big secrets did Mr. Pepper hold? Would Central Florida’s tourism industry collapse if Mr. Peeper took a job elsewhere? Why aren’t other executives who leave the bureau — people who are just as likely as Mr. Peeper to know the market’s strengths and weaknesses — rewarded with lucrative noncompete buyouts?

People leave their jobs to work for competitors all the time. The CVB’s paranoia is unjustified, doubly-so because it comes at such a high cost.

The CVB needs to change how it does business, and that means much more openness — about finances, about allowing the public access to its meetings, and about allowing greater scrutiny of executive salaries and severance packages. To wit: The agency has refused to provide details on Mr. Peeper’s retirement package, including the noncompete clause. Why so many secrets?

We hope the Orange County Commission takes steps to find those answers, whether the CVB cares to provide them or not.

People in the tourism business in Pima County can say the same about our CVB.  They love to give their members and the funding municipalities the “dog and pony show” with only the positive things.  As mentioned before, they are not compared with similar markets efforts to attract tourist dollars.  The reason they keep doing this?  Our elected sheep never question them or demand more.  They just sit there, nod and rubberstamp another $4million plus contract.  They are never shown how the money’s spent, even most of their funding comes from taxpayers!

This and many of our other problems(Rio Never, TREO, Downtown Partnership, etc)  is all about NO ACCOUNTABILITY.  Not from the voters and definitely not from our elected officials.  This will only be solved through grassroots business activisim and the deposing of the incumbents by the business community.  Fight the power!(threw that in there for effect)


While I know that Star’s editorial staff is truly drinking the Kool-Aid.  Maybe the Citizen, as they head towards that big newspaper stand in the sky, could step in and ask some tough questions of these and other overpaid fops.  But I am probably dreaming….

27th January
written by Downtown Dudette

Tucson is debating a new convention center and high rise hotel. Who’s paying for the $150m hotel, well that’s a great question.

 Our current facility is old and apparently outdated. It’s too small for big events and there’s not enough small meeting facilities for big events or something like that.  

A study was commissioned in 2005 which showed a positive economic impact of a new arena – read the AZ Star article HERE. 

And the beat goes on…..new arena + new high rise hotel + government funding = huge economic impact – or will it? Is the facility needed? Is it big enough to fill a market niche? Can we ever host a NCAA Final 4?

Up north in Phoenix the new $600 million convention center just opened – HERE.

By tripling the convention space, the center opens Phoenix up to large conventions and events, which can bring tens of thousands of business tourists into the city at once.

Nearly 70 groups are expected in Phoenix for 2009, said Alexandria Van Haren-Pierce, spokeswoman for the center.

The NBA All-Star Game plans to use the convention center for several events in February including the basketball theme park NBA All-Star Jam Session.

Members of the National Rifle Association are expected to bring up to 60,000 attendees to Phoenix in May.

Phoenix began making over the Civic Plaza with the 155,400-square-foot West Building.

The $600 million price tag was split between city bonds and state funding. The tab doesn’t include $18 million in upgrades to the South Building, which Phoenix bankrolled.

The 1985 facility was renovated so that the interior matches the newer North and West buildings.

(More about the Tucson Convetion Center HERE).

Here’s another look at the convention center business from Antiplanner.com

Operating in the Black, Government-Style

posted in Regional planning |

The director of Metro, Portland’s regional dictator planning agency, offers some insight into how government planners view such concepts as profits, losses, and sales. It is not a lot different from the way soviet managers looked at the same ideas.

Phil Stanford, a columnist for the Portland Tribune, recently commented that Metro’s Oregon Convention Center “has been losing money by the bucketload.” Two years ago, this convention center was the centerpiece of a Forbes magazine article about how cities are losing millions overbuilding their convention centers.



The pretentiously named Oregon Convention Center.
Flickr photo by Premshree Pillai.

Back in 1998, the convention center was losing money and Metro, which owned and operated it, was convinced that the solution was to lose more money by doubling its size. Portland-area voters were asked for the money to do this and they said no. So Metro did it anyway, spending $116 million on the addition.

By 2005, reported Forbes, the center was losing $5.5 million a year. But Metro was undaunted by Forbes‘ criticism, and proposed to build a new hotel next to it, saying that the city’s downtown hotels were too far away. (So what geniuses decided to build the convention center too far from hotels? Oh yes, it was urban planners.)

Anyway, Stanford is not enamored with the hotel proposal. But Metro’s executive, David Woolson, took offense at Stanford’s column and wrote a letter claiming there were some “inaccuracies” in Stanford’s article.

In particular, Woolson wrote Stanford, “you state the Oregon Convention Center ‘has been losing money by the bucketload.’ That’s not accurate. Actually, the OCC has operated in the black the last four years with its operating revenue and its share of the transient lodging tax.” (Notice that the “last four years” includes the year in which Forbes says the convention center lost $5.5 million.)

In other words, Metro doesn’t have to actually rent the convention center to fee-paying users. It is enough that someone increased the local hotel tax (at 11.5 percent, Portland’s is the highest in the state) and dedicated it to the convention center.

Now, I hope that even the planners who read this blog can spot the flaw in Woolson’s reasoning. If you have to count taxes to consider yourself “in the black,” you aren’t really in the black — even if those taxes are dedicated to your boondoggle convention center.

I suppose, for the benefit of some, I have to clarify the difference between taxes and user fees again. If a user pays a fee or tax and the money goes to whatever it is that the user is paying for, then it is a user fee no matter what you call it. But when a fee that is dedicated to a convention center is paid by motel or hotel users who aren’t going to the convention center, that is a tax.

Back in 1990, The Economist sent a reporter to the then-disintegrating Soviet Union to interview factory managers. The factories were going to have a hard time adjusting to markets, the reporter concluded, because their managers didn’t understand such basic concepts as “sales,” “profits,” or “costs.” (“Life in a Soviet Factory,” December 22, fee required.)

I’ve encoutered the same puzzlement from Forest Service officials when talking about the profitability of national forest timber sales. In the 1950s, the Forest Service was proud of being the only federal agency that actually made a profit, but by the 1980s, when it was losing $400 million a year from its timber program alone, its attitude was, “We’re the government. We don’t have to make money.”

When I would ask forest officials to calculate their profits, they would count tax dollars appropriated to them by Congress as revenues and timber sale receipts that they returned to the Treasury as costs (because they didn’t get to spend it on things they wanted to do). No wonder they lost money!

Anyone who thinks government is good needs to spend some time reading agency budgets. They may seem dry and boring, but that is deliberate: they don’t really want you to know where your money is going, so they overwhelm you with material. Just skip all the text and read the numbers. If you can’t read numbers, call up whatever school district ran your high school (another government agency) and ask for your money back (that is, the taxes your parents paid for you to go to school there) because they failed to teach you to understand and analyze numbers.

Mr. Woolson might be foolish enough to believe that taxes are “revenues” that can be counted when determining whether an operation is running in the black. It is too bad Metro was foolish enough to hire him and too bad that Portland-area taxpayers are saddled with an agency like Metro.

The Ripple Effect


Soon, a consultant will be hired to do an expansion feasibility study. “I wouldn’t go forward with a study if I didn’t think there was a possibility that the demand was there,” says Neilson. “And I think we owe it to everybody to find out.”



The 30,000-foot view of the convention industry shows a business in the midst of recovery as demand for exhibit space grows, convention center occupancy rates climbs, and meeting attendance rises.
But a closer look reveals some underlying shifts that are altering the landscape. One such shift is that convention and trade show business is starting to flow back into smaller markets, but at the same time, the market has become bifurcated between the winners and losers.
As Robert Canton, director, sports, convention, and tourism services at PricewaterhouseCoopers, explains: “The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. When you look at the percent increase we’re seeing in the industry, a lot of it is taking place in about 60 percent of the buildings.” The other 40 percent are struggling to fill their centers in a very competitive market flush with supply.
A majority of the “haves” are the first-tier cities like Las Vegas, Orlando, and San Diego, which were gobbling up all the groups they could to fill their buildings through the recession. Now, as demand returns and the big centers start to fill up, business is beginning to move downmarket into some second- and even third-tier venues.
Call it the ripple effect.

Hotel Pricing a Big Factor

The hotel seller’s market is having an impact on the convention business in several ways, explains Michael Hughes, associate publisher and director of research services at Tradeshow Week Custom Research, Scottsdale, Ariz. “The hotel package and capacity and pricing is the main site selection driver these days,” says Hughes. “And one of the main decision drivers for [association meeting] attendees relates to hotel quality and, most importantly, pricing.” So, assuming the center has the capacity to handle a specific group, decisions are being made based on the availability, quality, range, and affordability of hotel rooms.

Some second-tier cities, like Portland, Ore., have been able to take advantage of the shift. “Our (hotel) rate recovery is not as strong as other destinations, so we’re still a bargain,” says Matt Pizzuti, director of sales and marketing at the Oregon Convention Center. Affordability is one reason — along with being an environmentally friendly facility — why the center saw an increase in number of conventions and trade shows, attendance, and revenues last year, says Pizzuti. Occupancy is close to 60 percent at the center this year.

The Attendance Factor

Despite the haves and have-nots, the recovery is occurring, says Canton. Steven Hacker, president of the International Association of Exhibition Management, takes it a step further. He says the industry has almost completely recovered from the post-9/11 bust based on the Center for Exhibition Industry Research’s CEIR Index. The CEIR Index — which measures annual changes in net square footage of occupied exhibit space, attendance, exhibitors, and revenues based on data from over 200 events in 11 different sectors — says that all four metrics surpassed 2000 levels in 2005. “All but one or two industry sectors have not only made up the ground that they lost, but they have made gains,” says Hacker. (The index for 2006 won’t come out until next April; CEIR is an arm of IAEM). But not everyone is convinced.

Heywood Sanders, professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, who caused quite a stir with his 2005 Brookings Institution study that depicted an industry in decline, says the key indicators — attendance and occupancy rates — are not back to 2000 levels. He says his research shows that while both indicators have fluctuated over the last few years, they have essentially been flat.

A Cyclical Economy

One thing that’s telling about the current environment, says Canton, is how closely the demand for space and attendance at conventions and trade shows tracks to the health of the U.S economy.

IAEM’s Hacker concurs. “It appears as though for the first time, the hospitality industry — and especially the exhibition industry — is not immune to economic cycles. In the 50-year time period preceding 2001, despite six serious recessions in the U.S. economy, the industry continued to grow without pause,” says Hacker. That changed in 2001. He adds, “It’s become much more important that destinations do their homework to make sure the demand is there before building or expanding.”

If You Expand It, Will They Come?

Since the Indiana Convention Center was expanded in 2001 from 301,500 to 403,700 square feet of exhibit space, the city has seen the number of room nights booked in the city increase from 450,363 in 2000 to a projected 526,755 in 2006. The center hosted about 30 conventions per year before the expansion and now it attracts around 40 per year, explains Bob Bedell, president and CEO of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association. The current occupancy rate (70 percent) is equal to what it was before the first expansion. Now, city officials are planning to expand the center again (to 733,700 square feet) and Bedell hopes for a similar pattern. “We expect to increase the number of major conventions and trade shows we host every year by 18 to 23 with this expansion,” he says. The expansion will be complete in fall 2010.

But the “build it and they will come” strategy may not work if the city doesn’t have the destination appeal to support that additional growth, something Milwaukee officials are contemplating as they consider expanding the 189,000-square-foot Midwest Airlines Center. Unlike in Indianapolis, convention business has been sluggish in Milwaukee since the center opened in 1998. In 2005, the center generated 149,000 hotel room nights, down from 180,000 in 2000. While Milwaukee has lost business because the center doesn’t have the space to compete for larger events, the expansion alone won’t bring the business, says Doug Neilson, president and CEO at Visit Milwaukee, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. The city must have the overall package to compete, he adds, and with new hotels, restaurants, and activities, including the Harley-Davidson Museum, in the pipeline, the city is intent on boosting its destination appeal.






The Brookings Institute study from 2005;

The data on the supply of exhibition space are clearer than the data on exhibition space utilization because it is much more easily tracked. On this point Sanders is more guilty of mischaracterizing the data rather than using it selectively. He claims that the last few years “have seen a remarkable boom in the volume of exhibit space in convention centers,” calling it a “building frenzy.”

By expressing the ratio of demand to supply, one can calculate a utilization factor for convention centers. This is similar to occupancy rates that are used to measure performance in the hotel industry. The utilization factor reflects the percent of gross exhibit space that is used each year by the events that are tracked by Tradeshow Week.

Utilization Index

Good Money after Bad?

A number of cities have chosen to improve their convention environment by investing in the development of headquarters hotels. Sander says, “Many cities wind up, as they say ‘throwing good money after bad’.” This assertion implies that the original investment in a convention center is a bad one (a claim that most cities that have made the investment would dispute) and that hotel investment is just adding more of the same type of public costs. But the rationale for, and expected financial outcomes of, convention center and hotel investments, are quite different.

The most commonly used rationale for investment in convention centers is to generate economic impacts from out of town visitation. Nearly all convention centers in the U.S. are built without any expectation that project income will repay capital costs and most are not even expected to cover operating expenses. This has long been a fact of life in convention center development, although Sanders implies that convention center financial losses are a new and growing problem. In contrast, the rationale for public investment in hotels is to maintain competitiveness (not necessarily to generate new economic impact) and they are usually expected to pay for their capital costs from project income. In fact, all publicly financed hotels are expected to provide a significant return on investment to the sponsoring municipality in the form of residual cash flows and potential sale of the asset.

Since 1996, sixteen communities have successfully financed hotels using tax-exempt municipal debt. All of them planned to repay that debt with project income. The choice to use public rather than private financing is driven by the lower costs of tax-exempt funds which makes projects more feasible with less financial commitment on the part of the sponsoring municipality. Three of the early projects in Chicago, Sacramento, and Miami Beach have already fulfilled their promise to generate a financial return. Others more recently financed such as in Austin, Overland Park, and Cambridge are on their way to providing a financial return despite opening under stressful market circumstances.

As an established industry, continued growth in demand will come not from latent sources, as occurred during the last few decades. Rather, industry growth will depend on new demand, which is affected by numerous factors such as the cost of travel, the importance of face-to-face interaction in certain industries, improvements in facility design, resources available to promote events, trend in how firms allocate their marketing budgets, and overall growth trends in the national economy.

In most industries that go through periods of overbuilding (e.g. hotels, residential, shopping malls, and office space), the ability to generate private return on investment eventually limits the expansion of supply. Since most convention facilities are publicly financed, this market discipline is not necessarily present. Instead limited resources of governments and the public decision making processes that consider the merits of capital investment place limits on supply growth. In our experience, most municipalities are not “willing to try almost any investment in their quest for more convention visitors.” Concern over the proper allocation of limited resources and historical experiences of success and failure play very important roles in the decision making process. Which brings us to a point of agreement with Sanders’ overall conclusions: careful and realistic consideration of the chances of success should inform the public decision making process about investment in convention centers.

The Convention Center Shell Game from City-Journal.com – HERE.

The Convention Center Shell Game
Steven Malanga


Although Boston’s gleaming new $800 million convention center is set to open in a few months, so far it has booked only a handful of conventions. So dire is the facility’s outlook that it will need a $12–15 million annual public subsidy in its first few years of operation and may not reach its full booking potential for a decade, say Boston officials. Even that may be too optimistic, judging by what’s going on in Baltimore. There, a vastly expanded convention center that reopened in 1997 is finding it so hard to lure business that city officials are now searching for ways to make the facility more attractive, including spending millions in public money to build a subsidized hotel next door.

What is happening in Boston and Baltimore is not an anomaly but merely the latest chapter in what is turning out to be one of America’s biggest civic boondoggles.For more than a decade now, cities and counties have been rushing, at enormous public cost, to build new convention centers or add space to old ones, including a $191 million expansion of San Francisco’s Moscone Center, a $291 million new facility in Omaha, and a $354 million center in Pittsburgh. The increase in space has vastly outpaced the growth of the convention industry and often failed to generate the kind of economic activity predicted by boosters. Rather than energizing local economies, in fact, some convention centers are emerging as a drag on civic finances, requiring taxpayer operating subsidies on top of their huge, publicly financed construction costs. What’s more, the situation is only likely to get worse. Another eight to ten million square feet of exhibition space is scheduled to come on line within five years, an increase of about 15 percent in an industry where demand is barely growing.

Although those numbers should be sobering to any city contemplating building yet more space, in New York officials are plunging ahead with plans for the most costly convention project to date—proposing to spend a staggering $1.5 billion nearly to double the size of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The proposal comes despite the chronic fiscal problems of both the state and the city and the absolute lack of any credible evidence that the expanded center would pay back such a colossal public investment.

Indeed, to finance the expansion, the state and the city, both already heavily indebted, will likely have to float huge debt offerings and may even increase some taxes.

New York’s headlong plunge into this new project is evidence that local officials rarely let the facts get in the way of their love of big projects. Back in the early 1980s, when the state and city built the Javits Center, there were far fewer convention centers and little actual data on whether the business that these facilities generated helped a city’s economy enough to justify the investment. New York officials saw Chicago’s giant McCormick Place bringing visitors into the city to fuel the local hotel, restaurant, and entertainment industries, and figured Gotham could compete for that business.

But today, after a generation of frenetic building and with much better data available, the inescapable conclusion is that few of these new projects are worth doing. Boston, for instance, spent nearly $230 million to renovate its existing convention center in the 1980s, and the result was barely a blip upward in its hotel occupancy, says political scientist Heywood Sanders of the University of Texas at San Antonio, the foremost expert on publicly built convention centers. Yet Boston officials brushed that experience aside and went ahead and built its brand-new—and already troubled—center anyway. Similarly, a vast expansion of Chicago’s McCormick Place, costing $1 billion in the mid-1990s, didn’t prevent a drop in that city’s share of major conventions. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s huge expansion of its convention space has done little for the city’s struggling downtown: a major retail project there, Atlanta Underground, has struggled to survive even as the city’s convention business has grown. “The payoff is not there,” says Sanders.

But local politicians have typically argued that their projects will work better than those in other cities—on scant evidence for such conclusions. New York officials, for instance, justify expanding Javits on the grounds that the city is already a major trade-show destination and therefore won’t suffer like other cities from significant new competition. Yet Chicago was an even bigger force in the business when it expanded McCormick, but still saw its market share decline. And even if a bigger Javits were to attract some new business, it is highly unlikely to generate enough spin-off activity to justify its enormous public cost (including the eventual cost overruns likely with such a gigantic public project).

Gotham officials are relying on the optimistic predictions of government-sponsored economic studies that an expanded center would create thousands of temporary construction jobs and up to 16,000 permanent new jobs, mostly in the hospitality industry. But political scientist Sanders argues that such studies tend to be unrealistically optimistic. For instance, says Sanders, one study used to justify expanding Javits does not take into account that the center doesn’t generate nearly as much hotel business as other centers, because many convention attendees already come from the New York area, and because New York’s high hotel rates discourage some conventions from using the city. Another word of warning: city-commissioned studies almost always wind up recommending convention centers—meaning that the industry of consultants who churn out such studies has a pretty lousy track record, considering the long list of underperforming centers around the country.

But politicians ignore such inconvenient facts. For them, building big projects is often far more engrossing than building a strong economy, because giant construction projects directed by government agencies offer opportunities to reward friends and potential supporters with plum contracts.Thus the original construction of the Javits Center was perhaps the quintessential New York boondoggle, an effort rife with mob influence, bid rigging, and cost overruns that brought the ultimate bill to $486 million, 30 percent more than projected. And the center has never fulfilled all the promises. When it opened, a New York Times headline proclaimed the widely held belief that the new center “kindles dreams for West Side,” but in 18 years, the center has had almost no impact on its neighborhood.

New projects also enjoy the support of private-sector interests likely to benefit from them. In New York City, a perfect storm of private interests is raging to push forward the Javits expansion, including the construction industry that would build it, the Wall Street bankers who would underwrite the financing, and a hospitality industry hungry to benefit from even a marginal increase in its business no matter what the public cost. The hotel industry has even signed on to a possible hotel tax increase to pay for the Javits expansion, when a decade ago the same hoteliers vociferously protested a rise in the tax, producing studies showing that the increase hurt the local economy. Small wonder that politicians often doubt the claims of executives that taxes kill jobs when an industry reverses itself as cavalierly as the city’s hotels are now doing. In fact, of course, the innkeepers were right the first time: after New York cut its hotel tax by six percentage points, hotel occupancy rates jumped to 84 percent from under 76 percent in just three years.

The Javits expansion, as expensive as it is, only partially encompasses New York’s grand design for the Far West Side of Manhattan. Hoping to lure the 2012 Olympics to Gotham, the Bloomberg administration also wants to build a domed sports stadium adjacent to the convention center, which boosters argue could provide hundreds of thousands of square feet of extra convention space when needed.

With a $600 million taxpayer contribution, the stadium would be an even worse investment than the convention facility. Numerous studies have already documented that publicly financed sports facilities don’t return anywhere near their investment. One study by economists from Stanford University and Smith College, for instance, estimated that Baltimore was receiving only $3 million a year in additional tax revenues or new job benefits from its $200 million investment in the Camden Yards sports complex. Even projects generally touted as successful often don’t turn out to be, under careful economic scrutiny. A mid-1990s study by urban economist Mark Rosentraub of Cleveland’s arena and baseball stadium, often held up as a model of how to build downtown sports facilities, found the projects created only 2,000 jobs at an average public investment of $160,000 for each job—an improvident use of public money.

The real role of government in stimulating development should be more limited than what New York is attempting with its Javits expansion and its stadium. Government’s role on the Far West Side should be only to develop the infrastructure necessary to encourage private development: to extend public transportation into the area and to change zoning codes to allow privately financed office and residential construction there as the need develops. To do any more would place far too much taxpayer money at risk and would put government officials in the role of trying to predict what the market wants—a task government is ill-suited to carry out. But New York State is contemplating the exact opposite—balking at extending the Number 7 subway and, presuming to know better than the market, threatening to use eminent domain to take the land for the Javits expansion away from developer Larry Silverstein, who has other plans in mind for it. The state’s vast, monolithic scheme could well repel rather than attract high-value commercial development.

Meanwhile, the hospitality industry has learned that it can sit and wait for local government to finance its dreams these days. The Javits expansion, for instance, was originally tagged at a “mere” $1 billion but grew costlier when the center’s board stuck in a publicly subsidized hotel as part of the building frenzy. The hotel supposedly needs to be built with public money, because so far no private hotel company has been willing to pay to put up a property on the Far West Side.

The Javits hotel scheme is not unique by any means. Publicly financed hotels have now become the latest craze in the municipal convention-center wars. Cities like Dallas, Baltimore, and Knoxville are all contemplating building them, on the theory that these properties will help boost sagging convention-center business. Though hotel companies won’t finance these properties themselves, because they know they are unlikely to repay their investment, they are more than willing to move in and operate them after government has built them. The result is a version of the rat and cat farm: we use tax money to build a convention center that supposedly will stimulate the hotel industry, and then use tax dollars to build a hotel that supposedly will stimulate the convention industry.

The nationwide convention-center fiasco is striking testimony that much government-centered economic development these days is a “me-too” affair that involves spending public money on what others are doing, regardless of market dynamics—perhaps because politicians who benefit from these projects can avoid blame by claiming that they were only doing what other cities were doing. New York State seems especially infected with this disease right now. With its huge public complexes in Albany and its vast string of publicly constructed state universities, the state has always specialized in state capitalism, and it is not to be outdone in the area of convention centers. In his state of the state address, Governor Pataki advocated not only the Javits project but a new $185 million convention center in Albany to replace its existing facility and the modernizing of another facility in Lake Placid. Soon after, officials in Erie County renewed their lobbying for a publicly financed center in Buffalo, while in Syracuse, a group that has put forward a far-reaching plan to remake that city added a convention-center proposal to its agenda, too. These proposals would join an estimated 40 or so convention projects already under way in cities throughout convention-center-glutted America.

While politicians and private businesses push such efforts, resistance from taxpayer groups is growing. The Texas chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy, the national taxpayer group headed by former House Majority leader Dick Armey, is opposing a publicly financed convention hotel in Dallas. Knoxville citizens will soon get to vote on whether to spend tax dollars on a new convention hotel, after opponents of the effort collected thousands of signatures to get the issue on a ballot. In Raleigh, North Carolina, government supporters of a new convention center are trying to avoid a vote on public financing for the project—which they are sure to lose—by proposing alternate but even more costly financing that doesn’t require a referendum.

The mounting opposition shows that the public understands what a fiasco the convention-center business has turned into all around America. If only urban leaders could figure that out, too.

 The Tucson Citizen weighs in with ‘Construction Starting in 2008′ – HERE. 

4th January
written by JHiggins

Tourism is down nation wide. Qudos to the Metro Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau for thinking outside the box.  Check out the MTCVB annual report – HERE.  From the MTCV newsletter;

Bold New Programs Target Meeting Business
The MTCVB has launched a bold program to draw group meetings and conventions to Tucson. We are offering up to $20,000 credit to groups booking meetings in Tucson in 2009.  In December, we began an electronic and direct-mail campaign offering groups $1,000 – $10,000 credit per meeting for their master accounts, dependent upon the number of peak room nights booked. We will provide half the appropriate credit, and participating meeting hotels/resorts will pay the other half in the form of master account credit. Groups booking consecutive multi-year events (2009 and 2010) will receive incentive funding for both meetings. Meetings booked in 2009 for 2010 dates will receive 50 percent of the outlined incentive credit.

A separate but complementary incentive program rewards Tucsonans who provide the MTCVB with qualified leads that result in booked meetings. Every individual who submits a qualified lead referral will receive a $100 gift certificate to Tucson Originals restaurants and be entered into a drawing for prizes, including a $1,000 shopping spree at La Encantada, a $500 spa day at Miraval Tucson Resort, a $5,000 radio advertising schedule at a Citadel Broadcasting Radio Station with a custom marketing consultation, and a set of roundtrip airline tickets.

The goal of these programs is to stimulate meeting business for Tucson hotels and resorts and to aid meeting professionals with budgetary concerns. For more information, contact Graeme Hughes, MTCVB Director of Convention Sales, at 770-2174.

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