Memphis can't win convention center 'race'

Wesley J. Riddle is an attorney and public-policy consultant, and founder and co-executive director of Roots Memphis Farm Academy, a sustainable urban farming incubator. This is reprinted here with his permission.

 In 2005, the Brookings Institution published a study warning public officials that the convention center market had become overheated and was no longer capable of delivering on economic development expectations.

The report concluded that the convention marketplace is not growing, but has been in decline for decades, while the amount of total convention center space existing in the United States has expanded dramatically, nearly doubling during the same time period.

The increased competition among cities, and the resulting efforts to outspend each other to lure the most attractive conventions, was referred to illustratively as an “arms race,” to describe its hypercompetitive nature and propensity for producing casualties of war.

It is into this quagmire of city-versus-city public spending that the Memphis City Council proposes to drag the city of Memphis.

The council’s Economic Development and Tourism Committee recently gave preliminary approval to a committee that will study building a new convention center or expanding Memphis’ current convention center facilities.

The convention facilities of St. Louis and Nashville were described with particular envy. Some council members’ jealousy is misplaced, however. Caught up in the arms race, St. Louis’ convention center hotel has fallen victim to foreclosure, and just recently Nashville levied an additional tax on its downtown to pay conventions to use their brand-new, $600 million facility.

The story is the same across the country. Convention hotels in cities such as Baltimore, Austin and Phoenix are performing poorly, while the expansion race continues in Dallas, Detroit, Indianapolis and Orlando, where public officials chase those same coveted, but shrinking, convention dollars touted by our council and Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau officials.

Even Chicago has seen its convention business steadily decline, despite constant expansion efforts and the nation’s third-busiest passenger airport.

The supply of large conventions simply does not exist on a scale large enough to meet the demand.

Memphis is not wealthy enough to win an economic development race to the bottom — funded with public money, in which each job “created” goes to the highest bidder while private interests dictate the terms.

As the 45th-largest metro economy in the nation, we have fewer resources available than most of the cities we would be competing against and certainly not enough for it to be a weapon of choice. Inevitably, we will be outspent, as we run up against the harsh reality of limited borrowing power and a declining credit rating before larger, wealthier cities do.

We need not look far for better ways to create actual growth and genuine prosperity. Tourism is a vibrant and vital part of our economy. Convention centers, however, come with the often-overlooked burden that the real estate they occupy does not produce revenue.

To the extent it can be determined that Memphis is maintaining underutilized and obsolete convention center space, a better study would examine the feasibility of redeveloping the area of Front and Main streets north of Poplar in a way that strengthens, rather than weakens, the public’s balance sheet.

Let us use the resources we have to create a more vibrant block of a walkable Downtown that connects with other public investments in the Pinch District, the new Bass Pro Shops superstore at The Pyramid, and Civic Center Plaza.

Doing so will cost less money in the short term, produce more revenue in the long term and make the north end of Downtown a more people- and tourism-friendly destination.

The race for beautiful, vibrant, people-scaled places is one that can’t be lost and won’t end in obsolescence.