Here’s an obvious one: Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?

The following post was hammered out on the Strong Towns Network.

Here’s an obvious one: Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?

Over the last 20 years, convention space in the United States has increased by 50 percent; since 2005, 44 new convention spaces have been planned or constructed in this country alone. That boom hasn’t come cheap. In the last ten years, spending on convention centers has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, much of it from public coffers. [Quoted from The Atlantic Cities]

The desire for convention centers is simple: it brings in visitors with outside money who consume things that are taxed at higher rates (alcohol, hotel rooms, rental cars, etc.). Of course, as the typical  Strong Town reader already knows Рthis comes at a cost.

There aren’t really enough conventions to go around. The actual number of conventions hosted in the U.S. has fallen over the last decade. Attendance at the 200 largest conventions peaked at about 5 million in the mid-1990s and has fallen steadily since then. [Quoted from The Atlantic Cities]

The number of conventions and total number of people going to conventions has decreased since it peaked in the mid-1990s. The situation we have now is that of more cities competing for fewer dollars.

The problem with convention center developments are numerous: there are usually a lot of bad urban design outcomes amongst even the best convention centers, they’re large buildings in city centers that are essentially single-use buildings that don’t lend much to street life, and they cost local governments a lot of money.

In Washington D.C., between 2006 to 2008, the convention center missed booking goals and ran a loss of approximately $22 million a year [Source]. That’s a lot of money! And, Washington D.C. isn’t an anomaly. Cities around the country have tossed money into convention centers and they are almost all economic (and urban design) losers.

Here’s the bigger problem:

Convention centers aren’t limited to just our major cities. Most mid-size cities have them, too. In Minnesota – it’s not just Minneapolis and St. Paul, it’s Mankato, St. Cloud, Duluth, Rochester and even Bemidji!

Minneapolis and St. Paul may struggle to make payments on conventions center tab, but are big enough to absorb some bad decisions or make the money up elsewhere (but maybe not too too many). Yet, towns like Mankato (pop. 40,000) and Bemidji (pop. 15,000) shouldn’t be risking “economic growth” on a convention center. Bemidji’s Sanford Center cost $75 million by the way … and here’s what you’ll get for $75 million (and here is where it’ll be located):

[Image taken from www.ci.bemidji.mn.us website. Click image to enlarge]
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3 thoughts on “Here’s an obvious one: Is It Time to Stop Building Convention Centers?

  1. That Bemidji Convention Center makes me wonder what the most remote convention center in the US is. Bemidji’s what, 5 hours from a major airport (does Fargo have a major airport?)? Does Nome, AK have a convention center?

    1. Good question.

      My guess is that there is probably a convention center in the deep Rocky Mountains, surrounded by numerous ski slopes, coffee shops, vacation homes and boutiques, all of which are hours drive from Denver.

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