In his book Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, Heywood T. Sanders presents a critical account of the convention center industry. He targets local and state governments, business interests, and professional convention consultants as complicit in the systematic over-building of convention centers in an effort to demonstrate that, on the whole, convention center developments represent a misuse of public and private capital.
Sanders, a professor of Public Administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has railed against the industry for decades, beginning with a 1992 essay in the Journal of Urban Affairs called “Building the Convention City.” Then, as now, Sanders adopts a selective approach to his data in order to paint as bleak a picture of the industry as possible. Whereas Sanders’ previous critiques have at least ventured to present a comprehensive analysis of the state of the industry, however, Convention Center Follies relies primarily on argument by example, moving rapidly between histories of various convention center projects and allowing thoroughness and context to take a backseat. Sanders’ criticisms of the state of the industry consist, by and large, in three major interrelated claims about convention centers: first, that there is a massive glut of supply relative to existing and projected demand for exhibition space, which signals the inevitable demise of the industry; second, that the ostensible overbuilding of convention center space is uniformly the result of the collusion of narrow business interests, political insiders, and professional convention consultants; and third, that the financing mechanisms for these convention center developments are designed primarily to avoid voter referenda, and so are undemocratic. Each of these claims, as Sanders presents them, is dramatically overstated, and none is fully supported by his own data. This article will discuss each of Sanders’ main claims in turn in order to evaluate his critique and present a more moderate picture of the state and practices of the convention center industry.
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