Conventional Wisdom

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Selling the city on an expanded convention center may not be so easy. After a decade of massive public works projects that have changed the face of Denver, many voters are tired of supporting huge new endeavors. The memories of the extravagant promises made in the 1980s are still fresh, and given the explosive growth the metro area has seen in recent years, some voters aren't so sure they even want Denver to be one of America's top convention destinations. That could complicate things for city council, which will have to decide whether to put an expansion proposal on the ballot.

"I think being in the top twelve [destinations] would be great for our hotels and restaurants, but I'm not sure it's the best thing for the general public that would have to pay for the expanded convention center," says Denver city councilman Ted Hackworth. "I hear a lot of excuses and not a lot of good reasons why we should expand."

When convention center proponents estimate the financial impacts of a center, they often use figures based on the notion that each dollar spent by a convention delegate has a multiplier of four. Basically, the multiplier concept goes like this: When a bellboy gets a $1 tip he'll stop by a bar after work and spend the money on a beer, helping the tavern owner to hire a bartender who in turn rents an apartment, circulating the money through the city. But critics say these formulas exaggerate the impact of convention-goers' spending. "I think city council could be pushed to do this by the multipliers they use," says Hackworth. "It's time to challenge them on those numbers."

Sanders has been following the city's debate over a convention center for years; he's even included Denver in scholarly papers he's written on the convention center phenomenon. "When I first started doing research on this, I started doing case studies on a number of cities," he says. "One of the case studies I looked at was Denver." The fight over where to locate the center, Sanders notes, "was marvelously lengthy, elaborate and nasty."

Sanders hesitates to predict whether Denver will be able to sell its expansion plans to voters. But he says he's been struck by the success convention advocates have had in getting cash-strapped cities to fund ever larger convention halls. "There's no welfare for poor people but the most astonishing welfare for hotels and restaurants," he says. "There are two kinds of convention and visitor's bureau directors: the ones who are convinced they're not doing well because their center is not big enough, and those who think they'd do better if they had a bigger center. And there's always somebody who can build a bigger one.

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Stuart Steers
Contact: Stuart Steers