No cheerleading for convention centers

The Next American City‘s Josh Stephens offers a skeptical assessment of gargantuan convention centers such as Boston’s BCEC, described as looking “like the starship Enterprise in drydock, with a titanium prow stretching toward the harbor” and “utterly devoid of history or urban intrigue.”

BCEC-EX-0001 Stephens gives the convention industry backhanded props for its expansion formula — that is, build more centers in industrial areas to avoid NIMBY opposition, and fund them through hotel taxes to avoid the wrath of local taxpayers. But he says that gullible civic leaders are just adding to a glut of meeting space:

This remarkable escalation in the number and size of facilities stems from genuine civic enthusiasm, opportunism and cities’ belief in their own exceptionalism. According to [political science professor Heywood] Sanders, officials hold fast to dreams of what a new building or exhibit hall can do without acknowledging that the very same ideas are brewing in the minds of civic boosters elsewhere. Those boosters almost invariably rely on the recommendations of consultants, upon whom Sanders levels much of the blame for the national oversupply. “You have a great many people with very particular interests in making these things happen: consultants, unions, developers,” says Sanders. “All of that suggests that what’s going on in the larger market doesn’t matter, because fundamentally there’s no one who will pay the price for a center not delivering what it’s supposed to.”

Last fall, CommonWealth‘s Phil Primack investigated the track record of the BCEC and found that it hasn’t quite lived up to its promise:

Even some foes of the 1997 legislation that created the mammoth convention center acknowledge that it has attracted meetings and attendees more successfully and quickly than they anticipated. Last year, it hosted 125 events and drew 528,027 attendees, according to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which pegs the overall annual economic impact at more than $306 million. Many credit the strong performance to the leadership of the authority’s executive director, James Rooney, who is in the final year of his contract.

But despite such strong numbers, the convention center has failed to perform nearly as well as consultants predicted on the key industry benchmark of “heads on beds,” or hotel room nights. The convention center has generated half of the hotel room nights predicted in several studies, including one that played a crucial role in the legislative go-ahead to build the facility.

Photo from Boston Convention & Exhibition Center website.