Is convention center a money pit?

July 23, 2009 2:54:57 PM PDT
On a recent Wednesday morning inside the Raleigh Convention Center, folks mingled in the hallways, crowded meeting rooms, and examined exhibits. They were attending the Poultry Science Association's annual conference -- a national organization bringing hundreds of scientists and PhDs to the capital city. They liked what they saw.

"The hotel's right across the street. That is so convenient," offered participant Patricia Hester.

"We've been having a great time here. Wonderful downtown area, restaurants and that kind of thing," said participant Mike Lacy.

It's the kind of event that has convention center officials boasting that, despite the recession, the building is beating projections so far.

"We have exceeded what we set out to do, what we meant to do," said Doug Grissom.

It's the line one hears repeated when talking either to those who run the $225 million facility or to downtown boosters.

"One of the bright spots in the recession has been the opening of the convention center. It's been a great success in terms of its appearance and function," said Mayor Charles Meeker.

There have been big events like the governor's inaugural ball and the Antiques Roadshow - and the smaller ones, like the poultry convention with 700 people.

It all helps the bottom line.

"700 doesn't sound like much, but it pretty much fills up the hotels, the Sheraton and Marriott," said Grissom.

But the economy is taking some toll. Two events have been canceled and many are seeing fewer conventioneers than anticipated.

Officials declined to provide specific numbers to Eyewitness News proving the center is beating expectations. They also refused to tell us how many conventions had been booked since it's been open, and if any conventions that have already come re-booked for future years.

We're told all those answers will come out in a report in September on the one year anniversary of the center's opening.

While they wouldn't give specifics, officials said through the first 10 months of operation, the RCC is at 110 percent of sales pace for all events compared to what was forecast. Specific to conventions and convention tradeshows only, it's at 500 percent.

Officials also said the RCC has also been a huge catalyst in Raleigh for restaurant development and other small service business start-ups.

But for some, the lack of specifics isn't good enough.

"They won't release the numbers that are really important, is the problem," said Michael Sanera with the John Locke Foundation

Sanera wrote a report calling the convention center a money pit. He showed many conferences got deep discounts or incentives to book in Raleigh, adding up, he says, to more than $2 million in price breaks.

He argues many of the events that come here are state and local functions that probably would've been somewhere else in Raleigh even if the building didn't exist.

"What this basically does is provides a taxpayer subsidy for the downtown property owners and businesses and we think that is grossly unfair," he said.

Other skeptics aren't nearly as harsh. City Councilmember Philip Isley voted for the project - reluctantly - and he's hopeful, though not terribly optimistic, it'll pay off in the long run.

"We'll have to see, I think five years will give us a pretty good idea of whether this thing is a complete white elephant or a great thing for our city," he said.


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