Like mushrooms after a wet winter, convention centers seem to pop up almost out of nowhere. And much like the accidental fungi, once in a long while you can come across a treasured tuber, like the prized truffle or Maitake. But most of the time you're probably better off not consuming random mushrooms, because they can be poisonous. So goes the city in search of a convention center.
Despite well-documented increases in convention space supply and stagnant to declining demand, cities insist on trying to compete in an industry on its way down. As Heywood Sanders, professor of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, puts it in a recent Brookings Institution report,
"Currently, overall attendance at the 200 largest tradeshow events languishes at 1993 levels" Nonetheless, localities, sometimes with state assistance, have continued a type of arms race with competing cities to host these events, investing massive amounts of capital in new convention center construction and expansion of existing facilities. Over the past decade alone, public capital spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, increasing convention space by over 50 percent since 1990."
Phoenix is currently engaged in its own ill-advised mushroom hunt, despite less than stellar booking rates for its existing downtown convention space, and the obvious superior market dominance from nearby Las Vegas, with its similar climate and landscape. At $600 million from state and city sources, plus another $350 million from the city for a convention center hotel, Phoenix is assuming it will find the right mix of public subsidy and marketing to make it an edible exception to the otherwise inedible convention marketplace - public convention space across the country, in cities large and small, operate at increasing losses.
Some are even calling for smaller, regional convention centers in places like Scottsdale, acknowledging that these types of economic development anchors usually sink elsewhere, but "if we get it just right," our economic waters are buoyant enough to make it float. Nevermind that private resort settings already provide the kind of space appropriate for the smaller and niche convention events these cities are after. Did anyone notice the Westin Kierland Resort go up? What about the Camelback Inn, which boasts over 40,000 square feet of conference space? Cities must recognize that places that are suitable for convention space usually already provide said space, at the behest of private investors and business owners.
City planners, in their constant bidding to provide economic growth to their region, even at the expense of privately-funded growth, will often latch on to easy but foolhardy projects like convention centers. They would best serve their cities by heeding the old Sicilian proverb, Vidi ch'un s'affaccia quacchi fungi: Watch out for the appearing mushroom.