In my late 20s I developed the habit of reading and listening to a lot of sources with which I didn’t always or even often agree, something that served me well and that readers may detect from time to time in these essays.
The John Locke think tank here in North Carolina has been one of those sources after it was founded just after I was recruited in 1989 to Durham, NC, where I finished the last half of my career.
Ostensibly non-partisan, to me and many others it leans right.
Even though I am a Progressive-leaning Independent, a friend there kiddingly reassured me that “they let in a lot of infidels” when I heard from a public policy scholar I have followed for the past decade or so, that he was slotted to speak this week to that Raleigh-based foundation.
Dr. Heywood Sanders flew into RDU last Sunday for a luncheon speech at the extremely business friendly Locke Foundation. I couldn’t make it down to Raleigh at his invitation or even to the airport to meet in person due to people here who were picking my brain.
A word about misuse of airport reference before I get into his message.
For readers who think airports are always synonymous with places, Raleigh is a separate metro area east and slightly south of the airport it co-owns with Durham which lies upland and further west.
Located in Morrisville, NC, the name of the airport is misleading because more than 70 years ago, a Raleigh developer hoodwinked a Federal agency into reversing the order of the names in the airport.
I am not sure he was so strategic as to know that pilots, FAA beacons, flight crews and gate agents notoriously truncate the names of shared airports, ultimately confusing visitors, irritating more than half of their passengers and while not intentional, playing favorites.
The Locke Foundation must be credited because researchers there had already noted the complicity of urban businesses and land owners in what Sanders terms “convention center follies” in his new book by that name, detailing more than a hundred years of public facility development.
Feel free to substitute stadiums, arenas or performing arts centers.
Sanders has been personally defamed by most of my then-peers in community marketing since January 2005 when he published research on the topic at Brookings, a national think tank.
At the same time, North Carolina tourism expert Dr. Dana Clark at Appalachian State University and a former DMO exec began to publish cautions in tourism journals.
Had they read or listened, Raleigh officials would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars up front and hundreds of millions more downstream and still have achieved the same ratio of convention delegates to overall visitors.
But as one news editorial there put it, officials were consumed with “Charlotte-envy,” a variant of what political science researchers call “ego rent” in studies of elected officials.
But Sanders-vilifying community marketing execs shouldn’t have been surprised except at how detailed his research was taking shape.
Seven years earlier, consultants at ERA had similarly cautioned urban economic development executives in 1998 in a presentation entitled:
A year before Sanders published his Brookings paper, consultant Ernst & Young wrote a white paper warning cities, community destination marketing organizations, other consultants and urban developers that the supply of convention center space was ignoring the long term decline in demand as early as 1995.
In fact, Sanders had begun publishing studies and making presentations since the early 1980s noting the flawed use of urban infrastructure and the disturbingly opaque combinations formed among elected officials, private property owners and urban development advocates.
Sanders’ specialty after earning a PhD. at Harvard in 1977 has been the politics of urban renewal and revitalization. One of his early warnings about misuse of public infrastructure is 1984’s “Urban Politics and Local Public Facilities.”
He first sounded warnings about convention centers specifically as early as 1992, each time digging deeper and deeper into reports and public information easily available if so inclined to the mainstream press or to policy makers eager to learn from past miscalculations.
One of his first warnings about convention centers is a classic 1997 white paper published by the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a Massachusetts free market think tank and predecessor to the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina.
Anyone paying attention to data back then, as I happened to be while reviewing some of the very first trend reports on conventions and meetings published in the mid to late-1970s, could see that the emerging decline in demand from conventions and meetings was systemic, not anecdotal.
One or two hotel chain executives even began to remark about the decline in the early 1980s as those meeting facilities gained popularity over convention centers.
Yet the amount of convention center space across the nation skyrocketed from just 7 million s.f. in 1973 as I began my four-decade career in community marketing in Spokane to nearly 15 million by 1989 when I started the last half of my three-city career in Durham.
It had nearly quadrupled by 1995 when Charlotte, NC inexplicably tore down one convention center and opened another five times larger, but destined to only perform on par despite huge subsidies to lure groups.
Raleigh officials had no excuse a decade later when, driven by envy and in part by the sniping they read from a consultant to the Charlotte project, did likewise.
Even those who did look at the data often made two tragic errors. They would zoom in too tightly on a timeframe to truly see a long term trend and/or fail to notice that each dip went lower than the last and each rebound peaked lower than the last.
Those anecdotally driven would dismiss this, rationalizing that with tens of millions in more development, surely their cities could buck the trend, showing projections mysteriously going straight up.
Heywood doesn’t talk from his book in the speech in Raleigh a few days ago but at the request of Locke researchers, filled in part of what a North Carolina chapter would have been.
He uses an illustration in a new update to the Downtown master plan for Raleigh that calls for expansion of its underperforming, heavily subsidized convention center, which is hypothesizing that somehow performance in the future will skyrocket by 18% a year.
Sanders’ study of urban politics and accountability dates back to the 1980s.
His co-edited collection, The Politics of Urban Development, was already a classic when I arrived in Durham in 1989, and the perfect companion to urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt’s The United States of Ambition published in 1992.
Dr. Sanders’ work is about the misuse of tourism or visitor-centered economic and cultural development such as his presentation in 1998 entitled “A Plethora of Disneylands: The Promise and Politics of Conventions and Tourism.”
Rather than vilifying Sanders, those in my former field of community marketing need to pull their heads out of their cognitive feedback loop where they incessantly mutter among themselves that politicians and supply-side economic developers just don’t get it.
Dr. Sanders is actually making their point.
Except far too many in that profession fail to grasp what point that is.
Everyone thinks they are rationale, enlightened and open-minded but we’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs.
But according to Dr. Jonathan Haidt, fundamentally we are intuitive, not rational. However, studies show that “forced to reflect for two minutes on a different point of view can make us substantially more tolerant.”
Try it and then invite Dr. Sanders as a conference speaker. Even the John Locke Foundation welcomes infidels.
My bet is that one day a new generation of grateful DMO execs will give him a lifetime appreciation award.