Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Unfortunate Byproduct of City “Big Game Hunting”

The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), where I worked until a few years ago, has always been very conservative with economic impact calculations.

Frequently, when I would explain to friends of mine why we were so careful to net out leakage, resident spending and displacement, one or two would inevitably ask: “why would we do that?”  Unfortunately there are also still some feasibility consultants around, many disreputable, who don’t grasp why and should.

A quick glance at some unfortunate, recent headlines in Charlotte sheds light on the reason it is important to be very careful and conservative with economic impact estimates as written about in a post last week on this blog entitled, Reputational Risk – The Foundation of Ethical Society.

I haven’t spoken to friends at DCVB’s counterpart, the visitors authority in Charlotte, but I am almost certain the newspaper there failed to connect the dots to the real underlying cause of this type of problem.  It all begins with what another friend and former elected official calls “big game hunting.”

The term describes communities where powerful politicians and/or business leaders in a particular community become addicted to the fallacy that the only way for them to build their city’s reputation is to compete to become less distinct and more similar to other cities by building huge facilities to lure, usually with subsidies, extremely expensive mega-events.

To justify the extravagance, pressure is applied to those who crunch economic impact numbers, and if they don’t add up to be high enough, they find some schmo who will give them what they want.  There is no excuse for what the community-destination marketing organization (DMO) purportedly did in Charlotte, but believe me the pattern didn’t surface in a vacuum and it isn’t unique to Charlotte, even in this state.

This ego-fueled cycle is enabled by unvigilant news coverage and/or when attempted investigative journalism settles for answers for “what” and not “why” and any exploration of “who” usually stops short of exploring “who” when sated just enough by throwing some scapegoat or organization under the bus.

“Big game hunting” in my experience is a symptom of what happens when a community has a fragile sense-of-self.  But just as self-esteem in an individual is about so much more than receiving adulation, a community’s self worth or status in the eyes of others cannot be generated by huge facilities and events.

In a 1997 essay for Time Magazine entitled Sweet Home, Minnesota, Garrison Keillor gets at the bones of the type of fragile community sense-of-self that leads to “big game hunting” when he took the then-governor to task for telling folks there, as he argued for a new stadium, that “without major league sports,” Minneapolis and St. Paul “would be like Des Moines.”

Keillor goes on to explain that “Des Moinesity (or Omahaness) is a bigger issue in Minneapolis than in St. Paul” and then goes on to hilariously describe how some cities are unpretentious while others go what my friend calls “big game hunting.”

He ends the essay by writing “I personally favor building a golden stadium in Minneapolis encrusted with precious gems, but only for our own amusement, not to make us major league, which we’re not and don’t want to be.  We’ve seen major league places, and that’s one reason we live here instead.”

I’m saddened about what apparently happened at the Charlotte DMO.  They had good research staff and they knew better than to use raw national averages for a local event without calibrating them to local specifics or without netting them out for displacement and leakages, even if it would make that city seem less major league.

But I truly do understand the pressures both from within the community or often from nearby that often fuel such a scenario. “Big game hunting” is addictive and addicts get mean.

While fortunate during my career to always be selected by and serve communities which were averse to “big game hunting” I came close enough to the flame to be singed a time or two.

Whenever something like this happens my reaction is “There but for the grace of God, go I”, to use a phrase coined by English reformer John Bradford in 1555 before he was also burned at the stake in London and whose image is shown in this blog.

And no, for anyone as unfamiliar as I was, the phrase goes back much further than the 1966 adaptation by Simon & Garfunkel in Kathy’s Song.

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