Just how much is the Saint Louis Convention Center costing Saint Louis, and what benefits would planned upgrades bring? These aren’t easy questions to answer, and even the Post-Dispatch published a semi-skeptical article examining them. Supporters of the Saint Louis’s Convention Center (the America’s Center) quickly struck back, releasing a statement on its importance. They argue that without a competitive center, Saint Louis would lose conventions and the money attendees bring to the local economy. Unfortunately, on close inspection their arguments don’t hold much water.
An important and rarely addressed point is that a city does not need to have a giant, publicly funded convention center with a dome in order to hold conventions. In fact, many (if not most) conventions are held at private hotels. For instance, the Chase Park Plaza Hotel (located in Saint Louis’s Central West End neighborhood) has rooms that can host conventions and conferences. Some of its spaces can handle up to 2,500 people. Other hotels in the area offer to host conferences and small conventions as well.
For very large groups (with tens of thousands of visitors), a space like the America’s Center is necessary. The only problem is that Saint Louis does not attract many of those events, despite abundant available space. For instance, in 2014 the Saint Louis Convention and Visitors Commission (CVC) hosted 393 events for a total of 425,411 room nights. However, only 14 of those events had more than 2,000 attendees, meaning that about 96% of all events held by the CVC in 2014 could have fit comfortably in hotel spaces. Those small events also account for most of the room nights and attendees that supposedly prop up the downtown economy. Of course, if the Saint Louis government wasn't able and willing to rent extensive convention space at unprofitable rates, groups of various sizes might well be discouraged from holding their events in the city. But on the other hand, without its convention center spending, St. Louis City could afford to cut its hotel taxes in half, remove part of its restaurant tax, and retire much of its civic debt.
The bottom line is that while it is easy to claim that conventions contribute to the local economy (although not as much as supporters might have us believe), that’s not the same thing as saying that publicly funding a massive convention center designed to handle tens of thousands of visitors (and a dome that can seat many more) is of significant benefit to the local economy. And that is even further from proving that the next big upgrade will finally draw the big conventions that are currently bypassing Saint Louis.