The thing that ate Philadelphia

    Some people are afraid of spiders. Some hate bats.

    After spending too many years as a city policy wonk, different things make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

    Like this: “In an interview outside the chamber, Greenberger said a second convention center hotel will be needed after the expansion.”

    That’s from Kellie Patrick Gates’s story on Plan Philly about a Thursday hearing on the Foxwoods casino controversy. The Greenberger is Deputy Mayor for Planning and Commerce Alan Greenberger, a good guy.

    He’s telling Gates that now that we’re getting ready to open the $700 million convention center expansion, we’re going to need another big convention center hotel to attract the big shows and conventions.

    And while Greenberger didn’t say it, you can be sure such a project will require a public subsidy. And that creeps me out because this is a familiar story.

    I was a pretty green reporter back in the early 80’s, when city leaders were pushing for construction of a new convention center, at considerable public cost.

    It will bring untold riches, we were told. We can’t get conventions now because of our ratty old civic center. But build a shiny new convention center, and tourists and conventioneers will come, spending out-of-town money on hotels, restaurants, amusement, shopping.

    New commerce, jobs everywhere.

    My recollection is that the city debt service payments to cover its share of the construction cost was around $20 million a year. I wasn’t convinced the city would necessarily make that back in new tax revenues, but it seemed a reasonable investment.

    It would certainly generate some new activity, and it might spark development in a part of town that sorely needed it.

    So the deal was done, and as construction plans were made we learned told that even if we built the center, we wouldn’t get the conventions unless we had a new convention headquarters hotel.

    So the Marriott arose on Market Street, with more public subsidy.

    In the 1990’s we needed more hotels, and many of them had to be subsidized.

    Then we were told the brand new center was too small. We had to expand it, at a cost of $700 million, give or take the cost of a jet fighter.The construction money mostly came from the state, but nothing is free. It was a choice to use our share of state largess on this project.

    And now we hear we’ll need to build another big hotel to make the expansion work.

    Cue the Psycho music.

    After all these years, I don’t trust much I hear from the hospitality industry.

    They tell you have to build more or your tourism economy will collapse, because other cities are gearing up to take your business.

    Then when you’ve built what they wanted, they tell you have to build something else or your earlier investment will be a waste.

    I’ve looked at studies that purport to show the benefits of these investments, and when you read the fine print, they don’t amount to much. I’ve seen more convincing stuff suggesting that cities never get back what they put into hospitality projects.

    I’m proud of this city, and I think it has a lot to sell. But there’s a point at which the hospitality industry has to stand on its own. If the next hotel is such a sure winner, let the developers finance it.

    We’ll all sleep better.

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