The Conventions Won't Come

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Proponents of the West Side stadium like to point out that it won't just be a home for the New York Jets, but also a state-of-the-art convention center. To which skeptics are right to respond: So what?

Between 1995 and 1999-a period of unprecedented national growth and soaring corporate profits-growth in conventions was flat. Total convention attendance for the boom year of 1999 was less than in 1989, a recession year.

The convention business, like pro sports, is not a growth machine. In good times it is stable and prone to spurts. In bad times supply outstrips demand, and convention centers struggle to attract shows and meetings. Facilities go underused; budgets contract. That's what's happening now. Go look at the February issue of Meetings and Conventions magazine-its cover story is titled "The Lean Years."

There's also no evidence that centers are the key to attracting conventions. For all the Field of Dreams rhetoric about more space leading to more business, a number of cities have built facilities and seen no one show. Houston and Louisville both have convention centers of over one million square feet; neither is a major player in the convention market. The big dogs are Vegas, Atlanta, Chicago and Orlando, and not because of their convention centers. Atlanta and Chicago benefit from being airline hubs. Vegas is Vegas; Orlando has sun and theme parks. The most defining attribute of a successful convention city seems to be low hotel rates. New York doesn't exactly fit that bill.

What would the new stadium have that an expanded Javits Center wouldn't? A dome. Stadium proponents argue that only a domed stadium can land big-ticket conventions like the National Association of Home Builders or the International Music Products Association. But in 2004 the NAH had its convention in Las Vegas, which has no dome. The music producers were in Anaheim, which also has no dome. Chicago and Orlando? No dome.

There are other problems. Most conventions are held in the fall, which is when the Jets would need the stadium. The Jets say the NFL will accommodate the schedules of convention-goers. But this is the same NFL that pushed the Super Bowl back a week in 2002, displacing the convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association and throwing convention officials in New Orleans into a panic. The NFL eventually paid NADA $7.5 million.

The bottom line is that competition for conventions is a zero-sum game. The number of convention centers keeps rising; the number of conventions doesn't. Maybe an expanded Javits Center would help New York's position, but unless room rates plummet, the city will never be a Las Vegas. Which raises another question: Why are we striving to be Las Vegas? Or Atlanta? Convention competition is a game for second-tier cities. And not very smart ones at that.

-Michael Manville

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