A New Waterfront... For a Price: Cleveland City Leaders Try to Sell $700 Million Lakefront Proposal

David C. Barnett- A recreation center meeting room on the westside is filled with about eight people who have come to hear a presentation for the proposed convention center complex. Across the front of the room are a series of easels bearing colorful drawings and charts for this downtown dream. A computerized slide show slides through some impressive projections: 500,000 visiting conventioneers, over $3.5 million spent in the city, new local jobs adding up to $175 million in wages. Glowing numbers, accented by a sense of urgency.

One of the speakers is Cleveland City Planning Director Hunter Morrison, who sees this project as the next logical step after the construction of some high profile entertainment venues, like the sports stadiums, the Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Hunter Morrison- We have something to sell, now. We have a city that is viewed favorably. It's viewed among other cities of its scale - as Baltimore did its transformation in the 1980s from a city that was a laughing stock to one that everyone wanted to go to. And I would argue that Cleveland has a set of offerings that will attract people from other communities to come and visit and spend their money here. But we do not have a place. It's like inviting people to dinner and not having any silverware.

DCB- The question of who will fork-up the money to pay for the project is the bone of contention. The sensitivity to money issues comes from a history of city projects, such as the sports stadiums, that have gone over budget. Steven Strnisha, of the local business group Cleveland Tomorrow, says this project will be different. $200,000 has been spent on consultants, cost projections are very conservative, and there won't be extra baggage this time.

Steven Strnisha- We were in a situation with the sports facilities - which we would still strongly argue the benefit has outweighed the cost that has gone into it - but, we had sports teams that had leases, that had certain demands, and certain time-frames that we had to meet. We believe there is an urgency to doing this, but that we have a means to do it. As someone who has done home improvements, you try to do the best you can and I think we have a very good sense of the scale of this project.

DCB- The project tips the scales at $560 million - even more expensive than Cleveland Browns Stadium after its cost overruns. But, as it turns out, this is not a unique project. Heywood Sanders is a San Antonio-based researcher who has performed extensive analysis on the economic benefits of expanding or building new convention centers.

Heywood Sanders- The reality is that dozens and dozens of cities are building convention centers, all using similar financing, in a market that is not growing.

DCB- A political scientist by trade, Sanders did a survey of about 40 cities, running the gamut from Anaheim, California to Washington DC. His interest was in comparing the predictions of project consultants with the results.

HS- I've looked at a lot convention centers in a lot of cities. Every last one comes wrapped with a set of promises and forecasts, usually from a major accounting firm, that suggests hundreds of thousands will come, stay for many nights, and spend lots of money. If you look seriously at how a great many of the centers around the country actually perform, by and large, it doesn't even come close to the promises.

DCB- Cleveland Tomorrow's Steven Strnisha sticks by the findings of the city consultants and says the presence of all that competition just makes this proposal all the more urgent.

SS- I draw the analogy to, if I'm a homeowner, and I say I've painted my house and I've done my front porch. I don't have to do anything for the next 20 years. Unfortunately, it's not about that. It's about investing and keeping yourself competitive. Yes, there are some dollars associated with it, but there's benefits in terms of your home appreciating, your neighborhood being a better place to be. The belief is to do our best, be prudent, to try to frame how we pay for them in the way that is the most fair.

DCB- For researcher Heywood Sanders, the answer to that may come from asking another question.

HS- You've got to ask the Missouri question: "Show me." Show me the city that's been turned around by a convention center. Show me the evidence that this has worked. Show me where the consultants did a great job of forecasting the actual performance in city after city after city.

DCB- After this community meeting on the convention center proposal comes to an end, City Planner Hunter Morrison surveys the sparse crowd as he packs up.

HM- This is pretty usual. We're looking at more feedback though the broadcast on public access television. What we've found is that we get a lot of comments (and) responses from people who've watched it.

DCB- And so, a few more people have now seen the plans for this latest downtown revitalization program. A few more people who now have to puzzle-out the multi-million-dollar question: "If we build it... will they come?" In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

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