The Answer Is Always Yes

Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center
It’s coming. It will be big; very big. It will be expensive. And you can be sure it will happen. Neatly listed among the “program changes” in the City’s proposed fiscal 2007 budget is a $100,000 item: “Increase Funding for Convention Center Expansion Study.”

What’s proposed is a study to “determine the logistics and feasibility of the Convention Center expansion and make it possible for the city to attract more convention business.”

The $100,000 will presumably pay for a glossy consultant study, filled with charts and graphs, assessing the state of convention-hosting in San Antonio and the city’s future prospects.

For City Hall-watchers, the timing of a convention-center expansion study might appear a
The only real question is:
Which consulting firm
will get to tell us how
much we need a
bigger center?

bit curious. After all, the City just issued bonds for a new 1,000-room hotel, now rising on Market Street and nestled next to the convention center that was sold and built on the promise of boosting San Antonio’s convention business. A study of center expansion in 2007 would be done even before the hotel opens in early 2008, so the $100,000 study couldn’t possibly assess the impact of the hotel, let alone the city’s convention prospects. Indeed, it should take a year or two after the new hotel opens to see how it performs, and what impact it has on the convention center’s business and the larger downtown hotel market.
But the outcome and findings of the proposed $100,000 study are effectively already underway — back in 2004, when the City refinanced the debt used to pay for the last convention-center expansion, the plans were already set in motion.

Among the projects included in the 2004 bond issue (along with funds for the Alamodome) was an item of about $11 million, for the “acquisition of an office building in the vicinity of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center presently owned by the San Antonio Water System.” That refers to the old SAWS headquarters between Commerce and Market streets, across from the convention center, now vacated for the new SAWS office complex on 281 at Mulberry.

So, why would the city be using convention-center bonds to buy an office building? The City was quite direct in what it told the bond market and the bond-rating agencies in 2004: “The current plan for the Convention Center complex provides for site acquisition for future expansion.” That center expansion would bridge Market Street and fill up the site of the former SAWS headquarters.

City officials were also apparently quite clear in 2004 about when the new expansion would take place: one of the bond rating agencies reported that plans involved “a prospective expansion of the center around 2010.”

It is possible that things have changed since 2004, with a new city council, a new mayor, and a new city manager. But a glance again at the City’s proposed budget for the 2007 fiscal year shows an item for $955,000 labeled “future convention center expansion” that will pay for “the purchase of real property and other expenses related to the future expansion of the Convention Center.” The expansion is a done deal.

So why lay out $100,000 for a study of a project that is a sure thing? No one at City Hall really wants a “study” that seriously assesses the convention market. As Professor Phyllis Kaniss of the University of Pennsylvania concluded in her book Making Local News, these studies help sell big projects to an often skeptical public, with city officials shaping local media coverage “knowing that journalists would view the consultant as an ‘independent’ third party.” Thus, what our $100,000 will buy is a glossy, well-produced report and stirring Powerpoint presentation, complete with tales of how San Antonio is already a great convention destination on the verge of further greatness, how all of our competitors are building new and bigger convention centers, and how this public investment will yield thousands of new visitors, millions of dollars in new spending, and a windfall of new tax revenues.

The only real question is: Which consulting firm will get to tell us how much we need a bigger center? We might just hire the firm that told New Braunfels it really needed a convention center, and that its new center, now under construction, would bring thousands of visitors, millions of dollars in additional spending, and a windfall of new tax revenues. That would be the firm that just told the city of Midland that a new convention center would bring in $8.7 million in additional spending each year, and create 237 new jobs. The consultant was very sure about Midland’s future success, going so far as to tell city officials their optimistic figures “tend to be on the conservative side … We’ve done 400 of these and have a very strong base of knowledge.”

Oh. And that’s the same firm San Antonio hired last year for the “Destination: SA” tourism plan.


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