Ronnie Burt, head of VisitKC, the convention and visitor’s bureau in Kansas City, was quoted by The Kansas City Star complaining about an effort by activists to require a vote on the proposed convention hotel. He said, “I think it’s irresponsible for a small group of people to try to derail so much success in this city.”
Success? How does Mr. Burt define success? According to his LinkedIn account, Burt was the vice president of Sales and Services at the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association from March 2005 through December 2008. During that period, Baltimore taxpayers subsidized a new Hilton Hotel to the tune of $300 million. It opened in August 2008. Attendance at conventions in Baltimore has remained flat, and according to The Baltimore Sun, the convention center lost over $5 million in 2014 and again in 2015. The President of the City Council suggested selling the hotel, saying, "The hotel has been a drain on the city since it opened. We floated $300 million in bonds for it, and since it opened, we've been constantly losing money."
Would Kansas Citians consider that a success?
From January 2009 through August 2010, Burt joined the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association as the senior vice president of sales and services! Indianapolis also expanded their convention center during that time. According to the Indianapolis Business Journal, the project has failed to meet expectations.
Attendance for state and national conventions in 2009, before the construction was in full swing, was 459,944. Attendance in those two categories in 2012 was 483,164, a slight increase from three years earlier—before the expansion.
Is that success?
From August 2010 through June 2014, Burt was vice president of sales and services for Destination DC, the “the official destination marketing organization for the nation’s capital.” DC was also in the process of building a hotel: the 1,200 room Marriott Marquis adjacent to the Washington Convention Center. It opened in April, 2014 and convention-related hotel room nights in 2014, 2015 and 2016 are all lower than the peak of 512,000 in 2011—before the hotel opened.
People who crisscross the country spending taxpayer dollars may think that every new construction is a success. But that is not the case for the taxpayers and city councils left holding the bill for underperforming hotels and convention centers. Kansas City’s own past is littered with unfulfilled convention promises, yet each one was supposedly a success. Taxpayers have every right to wonder how much more of this kind of success they can afford.