Convention center machinations

Convention center machinations

A timely reminder came this week from the Post-Gazette about how taxpayers keep footing part of the bill for the confabs of this group or that group at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

And just why it keeps happening remains an important public policy question.

It’s no secret that the convention center, built and maintained with millions of taxpayer dollars, offers steeply discounted or even free space to national conventions that come to town. The rationalizations are those old standbys of “It’s how business is done” and “Hey, the subsidies pay for themselves.”

But as the P-G’s Mark Belko astutely exposed the elephant in the room, those discounts and freebies come “even as the center itself piles up annual operating deficits.”

And guess who gets to cover those?

Without getting too far into the weeds, officials steadfastly argue that the price paid in such concessions more than pays for itself in the money generated by convention center events.

But here’s a simple fact: Even more money would be generated if those using the convention center paid their own freight for that space and those deficits might just be eliminated.

And we’re not talking chump change when it comes to rental rates; we’re talking tens of thousands of dollars, if not well past $150,000.

Fear not, however, there always is some scheme to use taxpayer dollars – you know, taken from a bottomless pit lined and filled with gold — to further subsidize the already heavily subsidized facility to make up the difference.

Then there’s the argument that because of the “competitive” nature of the convention business, such discounts and freebies are an automatic. Otherwise, they say, conventions would go elsewhere. Only in public policy can extortion be rationalized in such a manner. Perhaps that’s the case for privatizing the convention center.

There is, however, another elephant in the room. And that’s the issue of taxpayers – and not effectively but actually — helping to foot the bill for private groups and causes they likely would not otherwise support and have no business having their pockets picked to support.

Think of things like a labor union’s convention, among others.

And then there’s the shell game of using VisitPittsburgh, the region’s tourism agency, to help cover the rent discounts using a “credits” system.

Or as KDKA Radio talk show host Wendy Bell wryly put it on Monday: “So, we pay for the building and for the event.”

Two decades ago, the new convention center was billed right up there with a new baseball field and football stadium as the be-alls and end-alls to foster Pittsburgh’s next great renaissance – something akin to perpetual money-generating machines that would make Rube Goldberg blush.

And to this day, their promoters rave on and on about the multiplier effects they have that don’t merely ripple through the economy but roll in like some kind of can’t-fail wave of great things fronted by the mechanical wave of a beauty queen.

Of course, the veracity of those claimed multiplier effects typically are dubious; governments are infamous for such exaggeration.

Long point short: If the convention center is the grand economic driver they claim it to be, there should be no need for discounts and/or subsidies; it should be self-sufficient.

Period.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).