Dripped Dry

When the Colorado Convention Center was dedicated on a spring day in 1990, the promises flew as fast and furious as a March snowstorm. Politicians who had spent years campaigning for the new center didn't disguise their delight with the opening of the tenth largest convention center in the United States, a gray-and-pink behemoth that some compared to a bubble-gum carton plopped in the middle of downtown. But for Denver's leaders it was a structure that represented the city's emergence from a bitter recession.

"This building symbolizes our economic turnaround," said then-Denver mayor Federico Pena. "It symbolizes the Denver decade. For over ten years, this building was a dream. Now it's ours."

The convention center's general contractor handed Pena a gold key at the ceremony marking the center's debut. "This is not only a key that represents the transferral of this building to the city and county," Pena told the audience. "It's the key that is going to turn our economy around."

Exuberant civic boosters promised a whirlwind of benefits from the $126 million facility. One consultant estimated convention delegates coming to Denver would spend up to $2 billion by the end of the decade. Visions of new hotel construction and sparkling retail promenades danced before the eyes of people who had spent years trying to convince the city to sign off on the project.

Just one year later, however, Denver's convention dreamship had sprung a leak. Convention attendance and hotel-room bookings lagged behind projections, with Colorado's spanking new convention center snagging only 64,700 delegates in 1991, far short of the 90,142 attendees that a 1984 study predicted a new center would attract. The statistics for hotel-room nights proved even more dismal, with conventiongoers booking a total of 107,925 rooms, just 32 percent of what had been forecast. The center's 300,000 square feet of exhibition space sat empty more than half the time.

Bitter hotel owners were so angry over the center's failure to perform up to expectations that they engineered the ouster of the president of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitor's Bureau. To top it all off, Denver was hit by a national boycott after Colorado voters passed the anti-gay rights Amendment 2 in 1992. Over thirty national groups called off plans to hold their meetings in Denver.

For convention boosters, though, those dark days are now ancient history. The Colorado Convention Center has made a strong comeback in bookings over the past two years. And only six years after the center opened its doors, industry boosters are pushing to double the facility's size--a multi-million-dollar undertaking that already shows signs of becoming a political football that could rival the furor over whether to replace Mile High Stadium.

Backers of the expansion plan say Denver has the opportunity to become one of America's premier convention cities, and they claim the only thing holding it back is the size of the convention center. "Not every city has an airport like we do or an overall physical location with the appeal of Denver and Colorado," says Eugene Dilbeck, the current president of the convention and visitor's bureau. "Denver's not a hard product to sell. It boils down to the convention center and the hotels we have available."

But a growing number of critics say Denver could be asking for trouble. Cities all over the country are expanding their convention centers--facilities that almost always operate at a deficit--in the hope of creating flashy money machines that will save faltering downtowns and make up for lost manufacturing jobs. Visions of happy-go-lucky conventiongoers packing bars and restaurants and opening their wallets with carefree abandon have been enough to convince cities from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on new and expanded facilities.

"City after city has promoted themselves into ever larger convention centers," says Heywood Sanders, professor of urban studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. Sanders has been studying the convention-center phenomenon for years, and says he's struck by how cities struggling to fund basic services somehow find the money to build gargantuan convention palaces.

"In an era where we're constantly told government can't afford to do anything, government has invested in convention space around the country," says Sanders. "You're dealing with something that's not driven by market forces. It's a combination of imperialistic convention and visitor's bureau directors and downtown promoters who have come to see convention centers as the most likely salvation for a downtown core. It's the wonder of local boosterism--it never stops."

Denver's own breed of boosters are convinced the city can become one of the most sought-after meeting places in America, but they'll have to convince voters to come along for the ride. And history suggests Denverites have never been as enamored of convention centers as are the local movers and shakers.