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Plenary Session Part II

OK, we appear to have touched a nerve. I was on the phone all morning and have been parsing through all these comments.

Let’s organize the discussion. To me, there are three main themes on to which people seem to be latching in this discussion about the Convention Center.

  • The City and Its Future: I’ve mentioned my view about the city being decentralized before but you guys have really reacted this time unlike before. Perhaps the term “The Dissolving City” catalyzed something it hadn’t before.

    It’s really the only way to understand how a city can simultaneously be worried about bankruptcy and yet also be considering building a new Convention Center. As the city crumbles, interests are banding together to protect and improve what they care about.

    Regardless, the point is the same: We all want a place with plentiful jobs and a sustainable, booming economy. Is this really the way to get there? If we have $750 million to invest in something to help us along, is this really what we would buy? I’m asking and you are thinking a lot about it so we’ll keep that discussion alive.

  • The True Economic Impact: Call us crazy but a lot of us are just not ready to drink the lemonade some consultants sell us. We’ve been burned a few times before. So what is the truth about how much more money we’ll all be bathing in when we have a bigger Convention Center?
  • The Money: Of course, right? How could we pay for this Convention Center expansion? Is the task force trying to recommend financing options it thinks will work or is it merely just handing the mayor some kind of menu of choices?

We’ll get into each one. No. 2 particularly will be interesting to discuss.

But let’s start at the top. The mayor has blasted right past that first point. He’s convinced that expanding the Convention Center is a top priority. And he is the city’s leader so that’s kind of what the leader gets to do: frame debates like that.

But think about it for a second.

If the end goal is to create jobs, is this the effort in which we want to invest so much money? Why are we prioritizing the hotel and visitor industry? Do the biotechs or universities, or the clean tech industries need infrastructure improvements we could build with such a massive investment?

I asked this question of a few people: If we have $750 million to spend on creating the best economy we can, is a huge building our best bet?

First up was Lani Lutar, the CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association and a member of the mayor’s task force.

“I’m not sure that’s the best use of our tax dollars,” Lutar said of the Convention Center expansion. “I’ve asked, If the objective is just pure economic development, could there be other areas of public investment that would be more important to this community and that could achieve more economic development?”

The answer she got is the answer I heard quite a bit: there would have to be a “nexus” between the revenue source and the benefit received.

In other words, yes, there might be other areas of investment in infrastructure that would have an economic impact. But good luck trying to pass a tax for them. The hoteliers pushing for a new Convention Center expansion are very clearly telling the city not to look to their industries for fees and taxes to support anything but those improvements that will directly benefit their bottom line.

This, of course, is their right. But again, a question: Are we really in a situation now in the city where you can’t pass a tax unless the people with the political power can actually see a direct financial benefit to themselves in doing so?

So let’s understand this: Everything’s on the table except what we know what the hoteliers won’t like.

Let’s turn to a project booster — someone who cares about San Diego and who thinks this is the best investment for its economy.

First up on this list is Bob Nelson. I talked to Bob at some length about all this. He’s a communications strategist for a lot of corporations and labor unions. He’s also a member of the mayor’s task force.

So why should San Diego do this ahead of all other priorities. It’s San Diego’s thing, he said. And he followed up in an e-mail:

If we were a rural Rocky Mountain community, we would invest in a ski resort; if farm country, more irrigation water. Given our climate, entertainment and cultural amenities and proven ability to outperform competitor cities, expansion of the convention center is smart and timely.

I think you get the point. Yes, we have other important needs in San Diego but not building a larger Convention Center would be like say not taking care of our beaches. We have this great place. People want to come here, so we should squeeze as much out of that as possible.

Finally, I asked Port Commission Chairman Steve Cushman, who is the task force co-chairman, what he thought about this. He’s made some investments in the past, is this the best investment San Diego could make in its future?

He said he thought the task force was trying to come to a definitive conclusion about whether indeed it is the best investment for our economy.

So I asked him what he, himself thinks. He seems pretty close to concluding that this is the best investment of our resources. But he also has flat out declared he would oppose any investment of Port Commission dollars into the expansion.

Does he think it’s the right investment for the community?

“It’s not about what Steve Cushman thinks,” he said.

So, it may be the right investment for the community but not for the port.

What do you think? If San Diego has $750 million to spend on infrastructure to prime the economic engine, is this the best way to invest it? Is the mayor right to simply assume yes and move on?

No matter what, to evaluate any investment, we have to know what the cost is. This is where the most technical of your comments came.

And it could get fun.

SCOTT LEWIS

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