It’s not just light rail. Cities have been smitten by all sorts of bad ideas that replicate themselves over and over. Think publicly financed sports stadiums, convention centers and now convention center hotels. University of Texas at San Antonio’s Heywood Sanders has a new analysis on this paricular boondoggle: It all began innocently enough. First, you needed a new convention center to attract the convention business. After a while, that was no longer good enough; you needed to expand or build a larger center, to attract the really big shows. It became apparent that if you really wanted this thing to work, what you needed was a big, first-class hotel, and not one a few blocks away, either — the hotel had to be attached right to the convention center. In for a buck, in for a bucket, as they say. If you accept the premise that your municipality should compete to host conventions because it will boost tax revenue, and you’ve already built the convention center, how do you say no? …. In each case Sanders cites, the hotels failed to bring in appreciable amounts of new convention business. To the extent that the hotels have managed to make money at all, they have done so by focusing on business or vacation travelers and groups that need a few rooms for their shows, rather than arenas designed to accommodate demolition derbies or tractor-pulls. Lawmakers are under tremendous pressure to make their plans work. Instead of admitting they were wrong and cutting their losses, they hope that dousing a bad idea with more money will turn it into a good idea. If publicly financed convention centers stay empty, and publicly financed convention center hotels don’t turn things around, maybe local governments will just cut to the chase and hire conventioneers to stay in the hotels and mill around the convention centers. Let’s remember that politics is not a rational process, so we should not expect rational results.
Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.