City leaders are continually looking for ways to improve their economic fortunes, and assure widespread prosperity. Understanding which strategies work, and in what situations, is central to good public policy.
For decades, cities around the country have been in a kind of arms race to attract the convention business, subsidizing the construction and expansion of publicly owned convention centers. More recently, the trend has been to subsidize headquarters hotels–large hotels built adjacent to convention centers that can promise large dedicated room blocks said to be needed to lure big national conventions.
All of these facilities are built on the expectation that having more hotel space will decisively improve a city’s competitive advantage, enabling it to attract a bigger share of the convention business. Typically, project sponsors have consultants studies purporting to make just this case. But how have these investments worked out in practice?
Heywood Sanders of the University of Texas San Antonio has methodically chronicled the convention business in the U.S. for more than a decade. His new book, Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power and Public Investment in American Cities, charts the the track record of civic investments aimed at growing the local convention center business. His analysis shows that cities around the country have been devoting ever-larger subsidies to a slow-growing and in many cases declining industry, with the result that billions of dollars of public investment have produced mostly meager economic results.