The case against the dome

The Birmingham-Jefferson County Convention Complex (photo by Dystopos)
The Birmingham-Jefferson County Convention Complex (photo by Dystopos)
André Natta comments at the Terminal about the verbal sniping that marred the latest BJCC board meeting. I agree with André about the need to stop the “internal battle.”

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.

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6 thoughts on “The case against the dome

  1. Always great to see that you’re checking out the site Rob. Thanks for the criticism of the piece; I haven’t seen a lot of responses about it over there.

    I’ll say that the example that I operate from with respect to the long term gain and investment is from Savannah, GA and probably the worst example of all time, New York City. The Westin resort on Hutchinson Island is seen as the red-headed step child of Savannah to some, but it has been incredibly beneficial in terms of encouraging hotel development and allow the hospitality and convention industries to expand. These industries are cyclical, and they are not the basis of the economy there just as conventions are not a basis of our economy here. We don’t need the big shows, we just need to give the shows that want to come here to have the space they need instead of shrinking them down to fit.

    One thing to point out is that while I think the space is needed, though I do not necessarily say that it must be done as a top priority.

    Mayor Langford’s indictment may move back to the top of people’s radar screens as a result of Blago’s impeachment, but as of right now, based on all of the travel I’ve done recently, nobody knows about it. They do know about the bankruptcy, but they’re more concerned about what’s going on in their own lives right now.

    I hope you also know that I agree that the mass transit system needs to be fixed as well as it is a key to all of our region’s economic successes in the future (especially if you look at some of the transit based pieces on My Birmingham and Dre’s Ramblings). But I’d take it one step further and say that it would need to be part of an expanded statewide system or else it may not do any good for those that need it the most.

    We need to see you out at one of the Happy Hours soon… Cheers 🙂

  2. I’m concerned that the drive for a dome is going to consume the investment that could have gone into building public transit. (Time to tell my city councilor, I guess.)

    Seems clear that the convention industry has played itself out as a source of long-term gain — for any city. Things change.

    Thanks for the Terminal Happy Hour reminder. And I just saw the news about the First Anniversary Party….

  3. Since I’ve been up here in DC, I have noticed all the ways that having effective public transportation improves the local economy. If one spends any time at all in town one will notice that the Metro system is aging and at times stretched thin, but it still provides an invaluable service. Taking the the strain off of the city’s roadways is success enough, since 40% of all morning commuters opt for either the bus, rail, or both on their way to work.

    If Birmingham wishes to have effective public transportation they would be wise to emulate DC’s example and not Atlanta’s. Speaking honestly here, I think that Birmingham is going to go ahead with this delusion and build the domed stadium–so it will be up to the Over The Mountain suburbs to build good public transit. The hope lies with the suburban cities, not with Birmingham itself which is going to continue to hemorrhage money and population until it is little more than a center for urban blight.

    Clearly what Hoover/Birmingham needs is good leadership, which has been sorely lacking everywhere. DC has benefited from forward-thinking people who have the imagination to be visionaries and understand, quite unlike Atlanta, that progress is not a thousand Target shopping centers, identical-looking suburbs, or short-term goals. But first we must give these people a reason to live here and not somewhere else much more progressive, in all senses of the term.

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