Ever since the St. Louis Rams started packing up for the Los Angeles area, local policymakers have tried to embrace a potential silver lining – more space on the calendar for lucrative events. When the Rams weren’t losing lots and lots of games in the Edward Jones Dome, the facility was used for conventions, trade shows, monster truck rallies and awesome boat shows. The thought was that with the Rams no longer occupying the Dome during the fall, non-football events could fill the void.
But Convention and Visitors Commission President Kitty Ratcliffe has a message for purveyors of this idea: Wishing and hoping isn’t enough. It will take a financial commitment from the region to make the convention center more attractive for potential events.
“It’s a big building. And it’s not going to be cheap to make the improvements,” said Ratcliffe, adding that it may be tough to get the state to buy into any overhaul. “But if we don’t do it, we’re going to continue to decline in terms of our ability to compete.”
Ratcliffe’s agency recently enlisted Johnson Consulting to study the long-term potential of the America’s Center Convention Complex. Among other things, the executive summary agreed that the Rams’ departure provides St. Louis with “the opportunity to capitalize on additional event days in the Dome.” It also said, though, that “the dome in its present stadium configuration is not ideal for meetings and conventions and a retrofit of the space is required.”
Ratcliffe pointed to several functional issues with how the convention center is laid out. For one thing, it’s not particularly easy or practical to get food to people who dine in a banquet hall.
“When we serve a banquet in there for 2,000 people, the food is traveling several blocks and up several levels and there’s no direct service corridor or freight elevator that gets from the kitchen to the bar,” Ratcliffe said. She said these decisions were made decades ago when "a very successful building ... needed some more space pretty quickly.”
She also said it’s not particularly easy to transfer large groups of people from the convention center to the Dome. And she said these types of problems hava a tangible impact.
“So if we have a big convention that has 20,000 people, 25,000 or 30,000 people – and they’re all in a big, general session in the Dome that starts at 7 p.m. and they all have to get into the Dome from the Convention Center in time to get seated for that event, you can’t really move them from the Convention Center,” she said. “These bottlenecks occur that can sometimes take groups as long as an hour to move people from one side to the next. And that is a challenge for us for repeat business.
“We can book them once,” Ratcliffe said. “But getting them to come back again after they understand those challenges is a little bit harder. So we need to improve the connectivity. And we can do it.”
The report suggested making a host of reconfigurations and expansions, including boosting the amount of space for banquets and meeting rooms: “By addressing the functional enhancements proposed in this report, the America’s Center will add 36 incremental event days and 67,000 multi-day visitors, plus two consumer shows to the center’s book of business.”
“We expect this improved volume of meetings, trade shows and events to more than replace the loss of commercial activity the facility has forgone with the departure of the Rams,” the report states.
Ratcliffe said she’s started talking with officials from St. Louis and St. Louis County about publicly financing the improvements. The cost of making these convention center changes will cost is not set, as of yet.
But she added that the renovations would pay dividends for “many small businesses and larger businesses throughout the region and employment for a lot of people.”
“There’s a clear return on investment for that,” she said. “And yes, there is an upfront cost to that that gets paid back over time from the tax collections. But there’s an almost immediate return to the community as a whole.”
No magic elixir?
Not everybody possesses a magnanimous opinion about the push to invest in St. Louis’ convention center.
Heywood Sanders is a professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. It’s not too hard to figure out that Sanders is a skeptic of publicly subsidizing convention centers, as evidenced the title of a book he's written: Convention Center Follies.
Sanders said the big problem with expecting big returns from convention center investments is nationwide competition. For instance: Las Vegas has almost unlimited resources to provide convention infrastructure, because its convention and visitors’ authority receives tax revenue when people book hotel rooms. And that’s just one example.
“What you face in St. Louis is a reality that every other city of any size in the country is competing against you and doing exactly the same thing,” Sanders said. “You go down the list of major cities and they’re all expanding. The ones that aren’t expanding expanded just in the last decade. Because since 2000, we’ve seen a 37 percent increase in the supply of convention center space around the country. So be enthusiastic about St. Louis. But recognize we live in a market in which even San Diego has to give away its convention center space for free.”
Sanders said policymakers need to be careful not to believe the notion that conventions are “some magical elixir for doing great things downtown or boosting the St. Louis economy.” He noted that consulting companies have almost always suggested expanding convention centers, which he contends hasn’t spurred on a lot of economic benefits.
“The lesson about the NFL frankly is the NFL goes where it works for a team owner and the league. They could leave Los Angeles two decades ago to come to St. Louis and they can come around and leave St. Louis. But what you want to do is have a serious community conversation about what your goals and your purposes are – and that conversation should be done in public,” Sanders said. “And it should be done with some serious recognition that this is competitive. This is not some magic that will necessarily work.
“The problem is if you just do what it looks like is the solution du jour, the thing that looked like it worked in one city so you can just translate that and make it work for St. Louis, that’s not likely to serve you very well,” he added.
For her part, Ratcliffe said Sanders has made “a career” out of warning against convention center expansions. She said, “He goes to every community that’s talking about building a new convention center or expanding one or doing a new stadium, and that’s just kind of his shtick.”
“He makes some very valid points,” Ratcliffe said. “Every city is doing this. It’s a very competitive landscape. And I don’t understand the argument to be made to not try to compete for that business. Because it is a very lucrative business that we will benefit from if we do it right. And all the communities will benefit from it if we don’t.”
She noted that Nashville recently opened a brand new convention center – even though the city could have simply revamped its existing one. That shows how serious St. Louis’ neighbors are about competing.
“We’re very hopeful that people will understand that this is a significant part of our economy of our region,” Ratcliffe said. “And that the investment is not just an investment to keep up with the Joneses. The investment is one that needs to be made to maintain our position and continue to attract business to this region, which is a big part of our economy.”
On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.