Conventions, Saint Louis, and the Future of the Edward Jones Dome
During the drama over whether the Rams would move to Los Angeles or remain in Saint Louis, discussion of the future of the Edward Jones Dome and the St. Louis Convention Center took a backseat to visions of new stadiums and speculation about backroom NFL dealings. Now that the Rams have left, the Dome’s future is taking center stage.
Civic leaders claim conventions support tens of thousands of jobs and bring more than a billion dollars into the local economy. Therefore, if the city can spend another $200 million to upgrade the convention center and renovate the Dome, the region might see an even greater benefit. Unfortunately, the Dome and the Convention Center are underperforming, and the businesses conventions they support are not even close to being the main breadwinners in Saint Louis’s economy.
The city upgraded the convention center in the 1990s, adding the Edward Jones Dome and funding the completion of the Renaissance Center. The convention center itself does not directly make any money, but the argument is (and was) that it brings in tourists who spend money (mainly at hotels), which translates into a tax benefit for the city. When the Dome was built, city leaders expected “hotel nights” from conventions would rise to 800,000 annually. But it didn’t happen. Saint Louis convention business growth has been low ever since.
Even in 2014, total convention-related hotel nights remained at 425,411. Worse yet, about 60% of those hotel nights are accounted for by convention groups with fewer than 2,000 participants, who certainly don’t require a venue as large as the 60,000+ seat Dome. In 2015, only nine conventions had more than 10,000 participants (accounting for 80,000 room nights). The CVC often blames the NFL schedule for holding down the number of conventions the city can compete for, but in the six months when no games were held at the Dome, nine large conventions was a far cry from busy.
What of the convention center’s huge impact on the Saint Louis economy? City leaders can throw numbers around all day, but according to the Census, less than 1 percent of Saint Louis City’s business payroll came from the hotel industry in recent years. That’s less than a third of the city’s total law-firm payroll. Even if we combine all the restaurants, all the entertainment venues, and all the hotels in the city (many of which are mainly supported through non-convention business), we’re talking about 7 percent of the city’s payroll. That’s less than city’s manufacturing payroll and about half the city’s healthcare industry payroll.
Percentage of Total City Payroll (2013)
Finance and insurance
Management of companies/enterprises
Accommodation and food services
Despite these realities, the city is not $400 million in debt for infrastructure improvements to lure manufacturing companies. It is not planning to spend more than $200 million on hospitals or legal offices. How has it come to be that the city’s focus (both financially and politically) has become so tied up in entertainment and tourism when that is clearly not the city’s competitive advantage?