Convention Center Expansion: A Dud and Embarrassment

Despite the Pennsylvania Convention Center website touting “the superb quality of the design aesthetic, detailed down to custom-designed carpets with 15 different geometric patterns,” the expanded state-owned Convention Center that opened in March 2011 isn’t exactly the Taj Mahal. But the intention wasn’t to create a thing of great beauty; rather, it was to bring in significantly increased convention business, that would, in turn, grow hotel business and retail and restaurant as well. As a preview to the opening, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked a number of salient questions, some of them necessarily contradictory: Would all the taxpayer millions on the expansion be worth it in the end? Would there be enough hotels to fill the demand of increased conventioneers?

As Tom Ferrick points out in today’s column for AxisPhilly, worries about the latter question have turned out to be largely moot. He minces no words: “The newly expanded Pennsylvania Convention Center is turning out to be a dud. With a capital D-U-D.”

Here are the problems Ferrick points to between now and 2016:

– declining numbers of conventions to fewer than before the expansion
– benefit to local economy goes from $510 million to $230 million
– convention hotel nights go from 340,000 to 237,000
– groups that didn’t return or canceled due to bad experiences/bad reports

Hotel groups in the area have long been frustrated with the Convention Center problems, but have little power to change it. Ferrick explains what the problem is–and it’s entirely unsurprising. All together now…”Labor hassles, labor costs, labor overtime.”

Since it charges union wages (carpenters cost $65.01 an hour, electricians $71.62), Philadelphia already is one of the most expensive venues for a convention — on a level with Chicago and New York and higher than competitors such as Boston, Washington, D.C., and Orlando….some unions load up on foremen or provide too few workers — so those who do show up can get overtime — and appear to work at a deliberately slow pace so as to assure the clock will run into the overtime zone.

One study, which compared the costs of running a similar convention in New York and Philadelphia found that on average it took longer to set up and take down a convention in Philadelphia, that crews include many more (costly) foremen, and that overall overtime costs were significantly higher.

Naturally, building trades head Pat Gillespie disputes such charges, but with a political monopoly, he doesn’t have much to worry about. For more from Ferrick, see below:

PA Convention Center in financial trouble; labor costs cited [AxisPhilly]