Heywood Sanders, the national ranking expert on convention centers, is in San Diego this week, scouting around. Sanders wrote a seminal paper for the Brookings Institution in 2005, predicting a destructive arms race in construction and expansion of convention centers. It has come true. There is such a glut of convention center space that prices are being slashed 50 percent, centers are losing money, and sometimes giving space away — but still creating more space.
Sanders then wrote a book, Convention Center Follies, published in 2014, that gave great detail on how one city after another hasn't come close to attendance projections that politicians and consultants fed to taxpayers.
In San Diego, Sanders notices that the proposed "convadium" (combined football stadium and convention center expansion) is not an expansion of the existing center. Because the two facilities are separated by five or six blocks, "there would be two separate facilities," he says. A different convention would have to be held in each location. One convention or meeting couldn't have activities in both facilities.
The major reason hoteliers and others want an expansion of the convention center is to accommodate Comic-Con. But Comic-Con has already said it only wants a contiguous expansion. If San Diego went ahead with the subsidized convadium, Comic-Con might consider moving, because centers are being expanded in Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
"Comic-Con's issues are not just space," says Sanders. It is complaining that "hoteliers are raising rates to astronomical levels" during the Comic-Con period. The costumed attendees do not tend to be big spenders.
Sanders has an eye-opening study. If you take Comic-Con and the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon out of San Diego's numbers, there were 320,000 convention-center attendees in 1999 and only 356,000 last year. "These figures don't leap out and tell me San Diego will have a great increase in business," says Sanders.
He notes that "San Diego voters are not uniformly enthusiastic about tax increases," and possibly they may not be in favor of "marrying the Chargers" when the team so openly flirted with Los Angeles.
Increasingly, San Diegans are realizing that the region does not need a subsidized football stadium, and with the glut of convention-center space, it does not need an expansion — contiguous or non-contiguous. It needs infrastructure and upgrades of rundown neighborhoods, as well as better firefighting and police services.