Convention Center Renovations: Picking Winners and Losers with Taxpayers’ Money
Plans to renovate the Edward Jones Dome and America’s Center, which together serve as Saint Louis’s convention center, are resurfacing with debate about funding an MLS stadium and Scott Trade Center renovations in the air. Costs for the proposed renovations come in at $350 million, most or all of which would be covered by taxpayers. Boosters claim the price tag is justified by all the major conventions and exhibitions that will be drawn to a renovated convention center. However, a closer look at the data and history shows that the convention business isn’t exactly lucrative.
Let’s start with some uncontroversial data.
- The hospitality industry constitutes a small fraction of the Saint Louis economy. Less than 4% of the city’s payroll comes from the hotel and restaurant industry.
- Nearly all convention business in Saint Louis could be accommodated by existing hotel and event space. In 2015, only 9 conventions had more than 10,000 attendees. In 2016 that figure rose, modestly, to 11. For 2017, Saint Louis is currently slated to host only 10 events with 10,000 or more guests.
- The Saint Louis Visitors Commission, which runs the convention center, loses some $16 million a year.
Now let’s review convention center history.
- The Saint Louis convention center opened in 1977, underwent a $150 million expansion in the late 1980s, and was flanked by the $280 million Edward Jones Dome in 1995. The expansion and dome were promised to boost hotel “room nights”—a measure used to assess convention center success—to more than 800,000 annually. But in 1999, convention business generated barely over 200,000 room nights. In 2014, annual room nights were just over 425,000.
- Nationally, nearly every convention center expansion or renovation has dramatically underperformed. Washington D.C.’s convention center saw roughly 36% of the room nights that were projected when renovation was undertaken. Austin’s saw 47%; and Portland’s saw 44%.
- While the America’s Center and dome were supposed to be profitable ventures for the city over the long term, the public still owes some $100 million on them, and won’t pay off that debt for at least 5 or so more years.
In short, empirical evidence suggests that the financial prospects for a major overhaul of the convention center are bleak. Perhaps that’s why no private developers are interested in funding the project. But if the private market indicates that the investment isn’t worthwhile, should taxpayers be saddled with the risk?
Convention-center boosters will object, insisting that a renovation will help the local economy, especially because a high percentage of convention spending comes from out-of-towners. This objection misses the mark in several ways. For one, demand for convention center space has remained flat over the last few decades. Is investing hundreds of millions of public dollars in a buyer’s market the best way to get windfall returns? Secondly, the tax revenue that would pay for a renovation could be used in myriad other ways that would have a much greater impact on the economy, regardless of whether that revenue came from outsiders. If we’re really interested in economic growth, why not spend the money on meaningful infrastructure or use it to provide tax relief to city residents and businesses?
The driving force behind massively expensive convention center renovations—much like sports stadiums, light rail expansions, and other “transformative projects”—appears to be a desire to rebuild the downtown core. But like most transformative projects dangled in front of taxpayers, the prospects for success are low and the costs dispersed; a small and well-connected few are given a sweetheart deal while taxpayers are left on the hook.
For what it’s worth, the economist Heywood Sanders, in his 2014 book, Convention Center Follies, devotes an entire 78-page chapter to the failures of Saint Louis’s convention center. Perhaps that, if anything, is an indication that we should be skeptical of proposals to reinvent the convention center with taxpayer dollars.