|By Kelly Milner, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 30, 2005 - CHEYENNE -- As Cheyenne considers building its own convention center, a Washington, D.C., think tank says the nation has too much convention space and its use is declining.
But local officials say that data does not negate the need for a convention center here.
"Space Available: The Realities of Convention Centers as Economic Development Strategy" was released last week by the Brookings Institution.
The Brookings Institution is an independent, nonpartisan organization devoted to research, analysis and public education.
The report was written by Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
Sanders' latest findings show that as the supply of exhibit space in the country has increased, the demand for it and the number of people attending is plummeting.
Overall attendance at the 200 largest trade show events sits at 1993 levels, the report says.
Sanders says cities are being given "rosy predictions" by consultants using inaccurate and flawed data.
In turn, communities that believe in the "if they build it, they will come" motto, could find less revenue to cover the daily operations of a center and less money in the local economy.
"With the possible exception of a handful of major cities that have long dominated the national and regional economies -- the grand promises of convention center investment are unlikely to be realized, the strategy doomed to failure," the report states.
Sanders' study has been criticized by the convention center industry, saying he only looked at the last few years, which have been the worst for the industry for reasons beyond anyone's control.
Terrorism, war and diseases like SARS have reduced travel as the country's economy has been in recession.
The International Association for Exhibition Management said in a news release that Sanders' report is "biased, flawed, inconclusive and laden with distorted conclusions."
Darren Rudloff is the executive director for the Cheyenne Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. He also headed up a task force that worked with the Chicago-based C.H. Johnson consulting firm on the possibility of a convention center here.
For the last 10-15 years, Sanders has been a critic of the convention center industry, Rudloff said.
"I think (Sanders) is probably overly critical and negative about some of these issues," he said. "I think some people in the industry are overly optimistic; I think the task force was successful in balancing all the different views."
Laramie County elected officials are considering building a $33 million, 133,000-square-foot convention center in Cheyenne. A consultant projected that a convention center in the city could draw 136 events its first year.
Rudloff said after studying those numbers in detail, they believe they would have to "hustle" to get that many events, and the community also would have to step up to the plate by creating some events to have there.
Mayor Jack Spiker and City Councilman Patrick Collins said they agreed with some of Sanders' findings for national travel but are not ready to toss out the convention center idea.
They both agreed with Sanders' findings that national travel is down, including to conventions.
"When it comes to conventions locally and regionally, my gut tells me that those are still going to be very well attended," Collins said.
This summer, Cheyenne hosted the Wyoming Association of Municipalities meeting. Spiker said they had to rent Cheyenne East High to find a space large enough. Those in attendance stayed at three different hotels.
Spiker said any group that has about 400 people could find a nice banquet hall in Cheyenne, but not the space to break into groups of 20-30, or at least break into those groups quickly.
"You can do one or the other, but not both," he said.
Spiker said with any project there are negative and positive points of views.
"In general, I think a lot of consultants are pretty optimistic," he said. "Maybe it's not as positive as the consultant would lead us to believe, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing either."
Rudloff had the task force read some of Sanders' previous work, and Rudloff personally asked for his advice.
"He was kind of honored," Rudloff said. "We tried to use some of his concerns and the issues he raises to protect ourselves and to get the best possible product for Cheyenne."
Sanders' advice to local officials was to make sure the consultant uses local data, and that the task force be a vigorous and questioning client.
"He said don't just assume that because you're working with a major company that they know what they're talking about," Rudloff said. "Question and really analyze the results; look at everything with a critical eye."
Rudloff said he believes the task force did a good job of questioning the consultants about the data and findings.
"Sometimes their explanations made sense, and other times, after further discussion, they said, 'You're right,'" he said.
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