1. The Classic Center expansion will boost convention business, and thus bring more visitors to town to pay sales taxes, generate more profits for local business and create jobs.Both claims can--and should be--closely questioned.
2. The expansion is a better return on investment for our tax dollars than investing in maintaining our parks infrastructure, greenways or transit stops.
1. Does expansion = more convention business? Not necessarily. While it's a very frequently made pitch, expanding convention space and adding hotel rooms doesn't always pay off for cities. For one thing, lots of cities buy into this idea that more is always better when it comes to convention centers. So, there's tons of convention space out there--and it's intensely competitive. For another, the convention business itself is changing as employers, tradeshows and other typical users of convention space scale back or are exploring web-based ways of getting together. (The downturn in convention business preceded 9-11, and the current recession.) This 2005 report from the Brookings Institution--Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy--outlines reasons for skepticism about the wisdom of investing convention center expansions.
2. Why isn't improving quality of life for residents a good return on investment? Well, actually it is. Good parks are good economic development investments for cities. If designed well, parks--particularly small neighborhood parks--can help strengthen community ties, boost property values, reduce crime, control stormwater runoff, cut traffic, improve air quality and encourage physical activity. They make existing residents happy, and help attract new residents. Read this report from the Trust for Public Lands--The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space--to see how parks generate lots of benefits, including economic development benefits, for cities and their residents.
Let's suppose Nelson and other advocates for the Classic Center are right that Athens stands to gain a lot from an expansion of convention space. And, at least according to the Classic Center's SPLOST proposal, past experience--in terms of exceeding event booking and hotel room usage goals--suggests that this might be case here.
Well, even if this is so, we've still have to grapple with the question of priorities. Personally, I'd like to see a larger Classic Center--one that's perhaps able to attract some bigger name concerts and attractions. But, if because of fiscal constraints, we have to prioritize either convention centers or parks--which it seems like we have to--then what's the best choice from an economic development perspective?
Should luring tourists here to spend money downtown be our priority? Or should investing in making Athens a highly desirable place to live be our priority? That is, should we prioritize investing in convention space for visitors or in neighborhood parks, greenways and transit stops for us to use?
Which economic development investment is more likely to help attract the kind of higher-wage employers we want to locate here? Investments for tourists? Or investments aimed at making Athens the most walkable, family-friendly university town in the South?
Unlike Nelson, I'd prioritize the parks over the convention center.