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Monday, April 21, 2003

Still empty, only bigger

They held a celebration over the weekend to mark the opening of the expanded Oregon Convention Center here in Portland. Beer garden, bands, activities for the kids.

Whoopdee doo.

Today we get to sober up and see that this $116 million project took a largely disappointing facility, doubled its size, and doubled its potential for failure.

We have built it, but the big conventions still will not come. And there's no sign that they are coming any time soon.

Take a look at the list of upcoming events. Are there any on there that could not have been accommodated by the original-sized Convention Center? I don't see any.

So why did we spend nine figures on this project?

The story goes back to November 1998, when voters in Portland soundly rejected a proposal to increase property taxes to pay for this expansion. Immediately the mayor and her spin doctors went to work. In their hearts, they said, the voters want the expansion, but they just don't want to pay for it.

Familiar "reasoning," but obvious nonsense. Many, if not most, of the no votes were not at all convinced that this project was a sound investment of public money. They were saying no expansion, period. And their misgivings were well founded.

The scheme that the mayor and her minions eventually concocted to finance this -- and it also financed another major fiasco, the renovation of Civic Stadium -- was an increase in the Multnomah County hotel-motel room occupancy tax and car rental tax. The tourists and conventioneers would pay for the expansion out of this tax, which increased from 9.0 to 11.5 percent. The "lodging industry" lobbyists signed off, with dollar signs in their eyes. Their out-of-town guests would pay, and the expected tidal wave of convention business would line the hotel operators' pockets.

I get a kick out of Oregon government's cozy relationship with the "lodging industry." Any time the hotel-motel room tax is up for an increase, the patsy politicians sit down with the hotel execs to make sure their feathers won't be ruffled. The state legislature is doing the same thing now over a proposed statewide room tax increase to pay for tourism promotion. Gotta make sure the "lodging industry" is o.k. with it.

The politicians are forgetting that this is Oregon, and things are different here. We have no sales tax. When visitors come here, the hotel-motel tax is the only serious Oregon tax they pay (except maybe for gas for the rental car). If the tourist market will bear a few points on the room tax, then of course that tax should be increased. But there's no reason that the revenue needs to be plowed back into the tourism industry! When I visit New Jersey, New York, Washington, Chicago, I pay beaucoup retail sales tax, and it ain't going to any convention center expansion. It's going to pay for schools, police protection, and basic social services.

The kind we used to have around here.

Rather than sitting down for a seance with the hotel types and promising to spend the guests' tax money on the industry, the state and county ought to just increase the taxes to whatever the market will bear, and use the money for things that really count, and which we so desperately need these days.

And the market will bear a lot. When was the last time you checked the local occupancy tax rates before you booked a hotel room? Exactly, never.

But I digress. To get back to the point, here we are with what was previously a half-empty facility, now a three-quarters empty facility. And a lucrative revenue base has been exhausted to pay off the bonds that financed the expansion. It's a big mistake, and the voters tried to tell the mayor so.

What will it take to save the Oregon Convention Center from financial disaster? This year's spin doctors are blaming the red ink on the lack of a flagship hotel near the site. It would have to be a mega-hotel, maybe 600 or 800 rooms, to draw in the big shows. And, golly, nobody wants to build it.

Shouldn't we have thought of that four years and $116 million ago?

And will anybody ever want to build such a hotel here? I doubt it. I think the hospitality crew is smart enough to see that Portland just isn't going to be a good convention town any time soon.

Why would you bring a convention all the way to Portland, Oregon? Sure, there's spectacular outdoors just an hour away by car, but that's no draw for a convention. Most of those folks aren't willing to drive 15 minutes. Seasoned convention-goers know that you spend two thirds of your time at these things indoors, in meetings, and when you get some free time, it's likely to be for just a few hours. There need to be some dynamite attractions within taxi distance.

What's Portland going to offer in that department? The Pittock Mansion? The Chinese Gardens? The Portland Art Museum? The Public Library? The zoo? Minor league baseball?

It just doesn't add up. They ain't coming all the way from Poughkeepsie to shop at a Nike Town.

Maybe a downtown casino would do the trick. But is Old Dowager Portlandia ready for that one?

Well, at least we kept the architects and construction folks busy for a couple of years. But now the white elephant is all grown up and open for business, and the construction jobs are gone. So is a fair amount of taxing capacity.

Better schedule some more beer gardens.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Still empty, only bigger:

» Everybody loves a good convention from JohnHays.net
A good convention means parties and everybody loves parties at conventions, right? Maybe, but it seems conventioneering is down. Rogue Pundit has some information about conventions. He also has information about some convention centers in Oregon. T... [Read More]

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