When reporters need a convention center disbeliever, they usually call Heywood Sanders. He’s an academic who for years has studied convention centers from coast to coast, and it’s fair to say he has a dim view of them. He’s often been cited in stories casting doubt on the success prospects of Nashville’s Music City Center.
And now he’s out with a new book on the subject that, according to his marketing materials, “exposes the forces behind convention center development.”
His basic thesis is that convention center attendance numbers are dropping nationwide, yet cities keep building bigger and bigger convention halls and expanding existing ones. Sanders says it’s due to city officials fulfilling the wishes of tourism boosters and business interests.
“What’s distinctive about Nashville is that it’s not distinctive at all,” Sanders told WPLN. “There’s a great deal of hoopla. There’s lots of grand promises. There are piles and piles of consultant market studies that all point to a great economic boon at the end of the day.
“And then there’s a reality. And the reality is a sobering one.”
What typically happens, Sanders says, is that cities hire consultants that forecast economic impact, attendance growth projections and how much of an economic catalyst the convention center will be; in other words, when the new convention center opens, new restaurants, hotels and retail shops will come rushing in.
(Photo Credit: Stephen Jerkins)
While there has been steady growth in these areas since the publicly financed, $623-million Music City Center opened, it’s difficult to tabulate how much of it is due to the new convention hall.
Growth could be attributable to other factors, like a strong job base and visitors who come for reasons other than conferences — not to mention the city’s well-documented frothy property values. How much the convention center is driving growth is unclear. But convention center supporters say all the new foot traffic created is good for business and encourages investment.
Another thing Sanders has seen in Nashville and around the country: over-projected booking numbers. The Music City Center’s first year’s bookings were about a third of what consultants had expected.
Tourism officials say part of the shortfall is due to a dearth of hotel rooms. With a number of hotels in the works, inventory should be more equipped for visitors in the coming months. Yet Sanders insists that more hotels is not the answer, saying room night bookings will continue to disappoint.
Andrea Arnold with the city’s Convention Center and Visitor’s Corp. says the Music City Center’s performance speaks for itself. And the best people to talk to are investors who are betting on the success of the area because of the convention center.
“Those are the guys putting their money where their mouth is,” Arnold said.
In his book, Sanders counters that, over the long term, that investor excitement eventually fades.
“The rhetoric of convention center boosters in city after city has not been matched by actual performance, and center managers and local tourism officials have ratcheted up incentive packages, free rent deals and plans for even more space or adjacent hotel rooms,” Sanders writes.
Another engine behind the convention centers arms race, as Sanders calls it, is the fact that cities have developed a way around voters. He says up until the 1980s, large civic projects like convention centers had to face voter approval. But since then, state and local governments came up with new ways of financing big-ticket projects that basically cut out voters’ final say.
For instance, instead of oversight by local government and using general taxes, the Music City Center uses the Convention Center Authority and visitor-based revenues.
This arrangement, Sanders writes, is aimed at “boosting property values and development prospects in the downtown core. The result has been to privilege convention center spending over other, alternative public investments.”
While Nashville’s Metro Council overwhelmingly approved the new convention center, Sanders believes if the vote went to a referendum, the outcome could’ve been different.
“Nashville should have a much larger community conversation about what its priorities are,” Sanders said. “You’re not going to take the Music City Center apart, but it should be increasingly obvious that it’s never going to deliver on those grand promises.”