The convention center decision reminds me of a neighbor disposed toward the purchase of lawn furniture. A lot of lawn furniture. She wasn't the type to have anyone over for tea, yet was more than amply provisioned with seating capacity for the garden party that never happened.
That is the plan for the publicly financed convention center/hotel juggernaut--build it and if they come we'll have a place for 'em. Despite a flat (and in some fields, declining) convention business, cities across the country, big and not so big, are lining up to construct these glossy monsters, often relying on preposterously optimistic projections.
Oh, those troubling facts. My colleague, Todd Morman (www.monkeytime.org) discovered some eye-opening details about the fruits of Music (wo)Man (i.e. head of the Raleigh Downtown Alliance) Margaret Mullen's convention center boosting efforts in Phoenix, Ariz. --a dead downtown. Morman cites a series from Phoenix New Times ( phoenixnewtimes.com/special_reports/downtown/index.html) that asks: "Why hasn't a vibrant core city happened? We've got interesting people: artists, tycoons, celebrities, cultural and ethnic diversity. Why are we saddled with vacant lots and Soviet-style architecture in our core city?" Sound familiar? Of course, the answer leaders have come up with is... expanding the convention center.
I could cite multiple studies and practical examples that illustrate the ugly truth: Publicly funded convention centers usually fail to live up to "experts'" predictions. Consulting firms don't get paid to give the bad news, they get paid to come up with rosy scenarios. It is worth noting that KPMG Peat Marwick, LLP, the firm that did the original convention center study, has been in hot water with the feds for filing false Columbia HCA Medicare cost reports as well as assisting Xerox in manipulating its accounting practices to fill a (oops) $3 billion "gap" in operating costs. Just the sort of firm sure to supply a paying client with accurate timely information, right?
Convention centers usually require city revenue to operate. The revenue shortfall for Raleigh's is projected to start at $1.8 million a year. They can also pump cash into a local economy (bars, restaurants). The question is how much, and who picks up the tab if the revenue stream doesn't live up to the billing? Remember, it's not just the center, it's the hotel spaces. Raleigh, to be fair, is factoring in the hotel with a view toward forestalling the disasters that have befallen cities that have built convention centers without adequate hotel space. But suddenly Raleigh is in the hotel business--a highly speculative trade with its own set of risks.
A big convention center is a mighty big gamble for a "third-tier" metro area--especially with the number of competing cities set to enter the market and, lest we forget, in view of Raleigh's track record with other big-eyed dream projects--Exploris, the RBC fiasco. Two-hundred-plus million bucks is lot of dough for our version of the Eggplant That Ate Chicago--a "maybe" that amounts to a massive public subsidy for the food/hospitality biz. And let's have a bit of clarity of the quality of jobs and average financial recompense for gigs in the hospitality business--what, seven bucks an hour (unless you're a hooker)? That'll just about buy the gas to drive from your trailer in Clayton with maybe a bit to send back to mamacita.
Let's be honest. When you look at the competition: Austin, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Orlando, San Diego, Knoxville and the literally hundreds of other big venues metastasizing across the nation--one is left to wonder which organization would be drawn to Raleigh for a regular convention large enough for the new facility to accommodate.
The recent Cranium/Money Magazine's list for top "fun" destinations listed Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill as the sixth most "fun" place to visit, and that may be true, although when you look at the city at the top of the list, Minneapolis, one has to wonder just who is doing the selecting. As far as Raleigh is concerned, cutting off the Durham/Chapel Hill part, when Lycos lists one of the features as Adventure Landing (sandwiched between Cameron Village and the Rose Garden), it becomes clear that the "fun" factor could well hinge on Raleigh's go-cart tracks.
Nope, this is the urban equivalent of automotive power windows. You may remember when one had to actually roll car windows up and down by hand. Power windows were something reserved for your loaded granddaddy. Now it is hard to find a vehicle that doesn't have them--a woe betide the loser who has to bear that social burden. Lord, we can't let Charlotte (underbooked, may I add) get one up on us, by golly!
The city's in ostrich mode: "We're elected to make the tough choices and we're gonna make a doozy and don't care a rat's keister that 60-plus percent of you voted it down the last time we put it to the citizenry." If it is such a dandy idea, why won't the council or the mayor and council acknowledge the studies and at least be responsive and up-front instead of insulting us? Why the secret meetings?
Back to Austin, a city to which the Triangle is often compared--state capital, a university and a tech business. They've got a convention center--a big 'un. The difference is Austin has a life, a real beating heart downtown, courtesy of a city government that encourages streetlife--what a concept. There is actually a reason to go to Austin and be downtown--lots of venues serving up local culture, Texas style. Ring a ding ding--three score of music clubs, a legend playing somewhere each and every night. Compare and contrast that to our little town, a place that has, against tall odds (like our very own widdle noise compliance officer, a real buzz-killer against whom the students are about to mutiny) nurtured some big acts that were forced to pursue their careers anywhere other than Raleigh. Fun is not permitted. Stay in your houses. It is like a campfire, always smoldering, trying to spring to life, and a colossus straddling the embers, hosing down the coals and stankin' up the woods with an endless steam of urine. The fire never goes out--and the piss never stops. So what do we get? Adventure Landing. (OK, there is always The Acorn. To be fair, how many towns have the cojones to admit to "dropping a nut" on New Years, tee hee).
Forget the Livable Streets proposal. I've read it and it's the same, dreary, endless rearranging of the Titanic's deck chairs. Vague, pre-chewed gunk, the sort of thing that boosts city planners' self esteem--makes them feel like they're doing something. Let's tear up Fayetteville Street and build a mall. No, let's tear up the mall and turn it into a street! I know--new bus routes! A convention center! That'll fix everything!
Blowing public money to wine and dine stripper-chasin' goobers from Dubuque while they wax about lawnmowers at Vinnie's is a shallow and insulting way to "revitalize" a city. Meanwhile, soon the only activity on Hillsborough will be squashed to-go cups blowing down the street, a pathetic shadow of what was once the happeninest place in Raleigh--now ritually disemboweled following a slobbery wet-kiss of death administered by the city and the (shriek) homeowners.
I know I'm just a lowly columnist, but my mommy did bless me with some common sense. And I see big red flags over this whole downtown "plan." It's like Lucy and the football, only I've seen this before and I ain't falling for it. It's time to get radical.
Oh, I know now I've gone over the edge, talking all sorts of loony stuff, but that's me--crazy like that. Geez, people actually living downtown. What a concept. And I'm not just talking about $300,000 condos. There aren't that many people positioned to play that game, and the ones that can don't generally avail themselves of walking life and hanging out. No, I'm talking about subsidies to make housing affordable to those who actually make cities purr--are now forced to live in threatened ghettos--you know, the regular joes, including artists, musician and writers, the ones Raleigh seems to despise despite pretty words to the contrary. Read all about it from urban visionary Richard Florida: www.creativeclass.org.
It is called "habitat creation." It works for woodpeckers and it works for people. You build a place for human critters to live and, whadaya know, sooner or later they have to eat, buy shoes. You know, live. And it is not just 25 times a year like some bloated, hideous convention center--residents are there all day, all the time, all year. Plus they just might do more for the community than wake with greasy hair and a hangover, flick a butt on the street and catch a cab to fly back to Dubuque.