But I don’t support building what we keep calling “the dome.” Here’s why.
(André:) Our convention center needs the space, period. Whether we want to admit that or not, it’s true.
According to whom? The evidence shows that building convention centers is not an effective way to invest in a city’s economy. This 2005 Brookings study points to a steady decline in the market for conventions, even as cities continue to battle one another to offer more convention amenities, including discounted rates and publicly financed hotels. The trend was in place even before 9/11 and rising fuel costs made travel less convenient and more expensive. Now we have an economic crisis that promises to shrink the convention market even faster. So who are we building for?
(André:) Despite the fact that the new facility will never fully recoup its construction or operating costs for itself, it is something that can provide long term jobs and revenue for this region.
So we’re clear that the BJCC will lose money on this deal. But where is the evidence that the regional economy will benefit?
Take jobs, for instance. Most of the employment will be temporary or seasonal, with little prospect for career advancement. The major contractor will be the St. Louis-based multinational HOK, so those profits won’t stay around here. The needs of the expanded center will create fewer professional jobs than equivalent investments in other projects would create.
As for revenue — we have every reason to expect that “if we build it, they won’t come.” We’re in a drastically slowing economy that already has a glut of convention space for a declining market. The cited Brookings report advises:
This analysis should give local leaders pause as they consider calls for ever more public investment into the convention business, while weighing simultaneously where else scarce public funds could be spent to boost the urban economy.
Convention planners will have no compelling reason to try Birmingham’s new facility when so many established ones are going begging. The city’s lack of reliable public transit will be a deal breaker for many, to say nothing of negative publicity attached to the mayor’s indictment on fraud charges and the county’s looming bankruptcy.
This is why I’m convinced that going after the big shows is a sucker’s bet for Birmingham. There are so many ways to invest in the city that promise much better results.
For a start, let’s build a public transit system that local people can rely on and out-of-towners can easily understand. That’s a minimal requirement for getting people to come do business in Birmingham.