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Heywood does more convention center math

More numbers to show more convention space is not needed!

San Diego Convention Center
  • San Diego Convention Center

Heywood Sanders, professor at the University of Texas San Antonio, and the nation's ranking expert on convention centers, just visited San Diego. He is the author of the book Convention Center Follies, telling how convention centers are massively overbuilt and prices are plunging. (San Diego is cutting prices by 50 percent, as are other centers.)

Heywood Sanders

Heywood Sanders

For years, Sanders has been quoted in the Reader, challenging the San Diego Convention Center's published numbers and pointing out the follies of expansion — both in San Diego and elsewhere.

While he was here, he walked to the location that is now being tossed around as a possible combined convention center/domed football stadium, on land owned by John Moores. Sanders says that combined centers/stadiums don't work well.

"A stadium is not great convention center space. You only have about 150,000 square feet on the floor — pretty small."

If San Diego went ahead with such a project, "You would have two separate convention centers," says Sanders. Experience has shown that people attending one convention won't walk a long distance to get to the second one, and in this case, as Sanders found out, one goes over a pedestrian bridge over Harbor Drive, and then walks several blocks to the new location. There would have to be one convention in the new location, and another in the current one.

So, now the question becomes: would San Diego be able to sell out two centers? It's extremely doubtful. San Diego's numbers are pushed by Comic-Con and the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. The latter should probably not be classified as a convention, because the attendees are mostly from the San Diego area. The former is questionable, too. Many Comic-Con attendees are from San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, and go home in the evening, thus not filling hotels or even restaurants. And there is controversy about how much Comic-Con attendees spend in restaurants and hotels. A lot of them are brown-baggers.

Here's a shocker: "It's not clear that, aside from the growth of Comic-Con and the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the center is doing better than it was in the late 1990s before the expansion," says Sanders. The expected attendance this year is 546,628. If you subtract Comic-Con and the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon, the number is attendance of 356,628. The center was expanded in 2001. So, go back to 1998 and 1999. Without Comic-Con and Rock 'n' Roll, attendance in 1998 was 287,947. In 1999, without Comic-Con and the marathon, it was 320,034. So, attendance has hardly grown impressively in more than a decade and a half.

Here's another shocker: In 2008, attendance was 478,159 without Comic-Con and the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Thus, the convention center has lost business since 2008, during the Great Recession.

It will be extremely difficult for any expansion — particularly one blocks away — to pay off.

San Diego gave John Moores land in the ballpark district for extremely low (early 1990s) prices. He raked in an estimated $700 million to $1 billion selling that land to developers. That's apart from the $300 million subsidy for the ballpark. Then San Diego put public projects, such as the library, near Moores's buildings so he could feast off infrastructure that he was paying little or nothing for, says former councilmember Bruce Henderson. Now some San Diegans want to buy land from Moores's company for a combined stadium-convention center that would probably be a white elephant.

"It's corporate welfare on steroids," says Henderson.

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It is not about convention centers making money it is, like stadiums, about politicos being able to say "mine is bigger than yours". Bragging rights and feeding big bucks to the privileged few.

AlexClarke: Convention centers are all about corporate welfare. The cities don't seem to care that their centers are losing money, as long as the hoteliers are raking it in.

Sanders knows of an instance that I reported in a previous column in which Los Angeles actually paid a group to hold their convention in L.A. Centers, including San Diego's, are slashing prices 50 percent because of the national glut of convention space. But they keep expanding. It is insanity, and Sanders has done a great job bringing it to the public's attention. Best, Don Bauder

And how much does John Moores stand to make if a new convention center is built on land he owns? How much would he be willing to pay to make that happen?

I'm seeing no need to expand the Convention Center. Comicon is one event for a few days. Frankly, they need to raise their prices, not try to cram another 50,000 people in. There is zero economic justification for catering to them... it's "big", but does not bring in big money. Certainly not enough to justify an enormous expansion project.

jnojr: It's too early to figure how much Moores would rake in should a combined domed stadium/convention center expansion go on the land of JMI, a company he controls. You can bet he would rake in a bundle of money.

You are correct that the only reason the San Diego establishment wants to expand the convention center is to accommodate Comic-Con. Of course, nobody is saying that. But the economic results of the center clearly show that it has been unsuccessful getting other kinds of tenants for the center. Comic-con and the Rock 'n Roll Marathon account for its growth. That is no surprise. Convention centers are vastly overbuilt. Convention planners get enormous discounts for their events and always bargain for great deals.

There is absolutely no need for an expansion of the convention center. There is absolutely no reason for subsidizing a stadium for the Chargers, who do nothing for the local economy and want to go to L.A. anyway.

San Diego's first order of business should be repairing its sorry infrastructure. Any money spent on a convention center expansion and the Chargers simply delays the fixing of streets, sidewalks, sewers, water delivery systems, and the like. Best, Don Bauder

Mike Murphy: So true: San Diego is littered with corruption. Best, Don Bauder

and at street level a fair share of beggars too.

Murphyjunk: If you are going to be homeless, San Diego is an ideal location because the weather is mild all year.

My guess, however, is that beggars could do better in cities with higher median household incomes and lower costs of living. Best, Don Bauder

well, in 3rd world countries, the beggars are organized, dropped off at their spots and picked up at night, here it's just chaos . ( unless its cooperate begging)

Murphyjunk: At first when you said "organized" I thought you meant the beggars belong to a labor union or a fraternity. Then I realized you meant that they are strategically placed at locations around the city. I haven't noticed that in my travels but I am not going to gainsay your statement. Actually, I don't know how a tourist would figure that out. Best, Don Bauder

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