Plenary Session Part V

I was away last week at a fascinating roundtable discussion in Aspen about the future of media. There were some heavy hitters there. And then there was me. I wrote a bit more about it in the Morning Report (have you signed up yet?) and if you’re really into it, you can actually watch the four-day discussion here.

While I was out, I noticed that Lani Lutar, the CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, issued a rather brutal assessment of the Convention Center expansion task force of which she is a member.

From Liam Dillon’s blog The Hall, where Lutar made it known that she wouldn’t be voting for the task force’s recommendation:

I thought the mayor wanted us to dig deep into this and I don’t think we’ve fulfilled that duty. It’s unfortunate because the process has put a cloud over the merits (of the expansion) and it didn’t need to be that way. If the information would have been presented in a more straightforward fashion, if we had a better understanding of the tradeoffs, it would have been more beneficial to the mayor, the council and the public.

This is a big deal. Her criticisms speak to a higher problem with what the mayor put in motion. He doesn’t want to deal with cost. He wanted someone else to. The task force threw that potato back at him. They all want this thing but nobody wants to be seen as the one asking for money for it.

On the bigger question of whether it’s even the priority on which the city should be focused, it looks like we had another interesting back and forth in the discussions spurred by the previous posts.

I thought it was overall a healthy exchange.

Steven Johnson, the vice president for public affairs of the current Convention Center, had a tough response for, Kevin Carroll, who had complained that the discussion was yet another example of downtown interests ignoring the “true” economic engine in San Diego: the tech industry:

It is nice to see my old colleague Kevin Carroll back in the mix, however, his comments are only half truths. Government (and I know as I lobbied for HP beside Kevin when it was called AEA) subsidizes his business with multimillion dollar tax breaks both at the local, state and federal levels. There is no doubt that technology is a strong economic sector but to compare the entire payroll of all tech companies against the simple tax revenues generated by the Convention Center alone is absurd math. Look at the ENTIRE tourism and visitor industry revenues, payroll, etc., not just the Convention Center. Those who compare a $1000 visitor spending to a $100k salary are equally at fault. What about comparing the salaries of the restaurant owners, the hotel managers, sales executives, etc. to the salary of the tech employee? THAT is fair.

Is it? Isn’t this something that a true task force on the San Diego economy could do: Start to put these things in comparison so we could decide, as a community, what we really need to do to create he city we want?

Yes, the discussion is lively.

But it did devolve at one point. A writer, Fred Williams, attacked Bob Nelson, who supports the expansion and is on the task force. Williams called Nelson a “joker” who was using “phony” numbers to boost the plan.

I’d like to make something clear: I believe Nelson and most of the other supporters of the new Convention Center expansion are sincere. There’s no doubt the conventions that come to town bring in big dollars and a city that scoffs at the people who want to visit and spend money is not a city I want to be a part of.

It’s natural that there is an anxious group of boosters hoping to do everything possible to make sure we are as attractive a destination as possible.

My perspective comes from just wondering whether this is the highest priority for the city right now. The boosters are having trouble identifying from where the money to pay for it is going to come. The city, of course, has none. In fact, it has less than none.

There are downtown redevelopment funds supposedly available but many of those are being reclaimed by the state and/or being held in trust for a new major library downtown. Yes, that is our other most important priority right now.

So my point is that obviously we have people in charge who have no idea what they really want.

Yet on the discussions go.

Kevin Carroll and the tech community are pleading for reliable water, good, clean attractive neighborhoods and public transit. And they are imagining what they could do with a $750 million investment into these kinds of things.

Obviously, not everyone can get what they want from a city so burdened with bad decisions. But that’s kind of my point: With limited resources, we need to make each dollar count perfectly. We need to set priorities and vision.

There is none of this, obviously. I don’t understand why we can’t expect the city’s main leader — the mayor — to explain regularly, easily and clearly why he’s pursuing a Convention Center expansion (the most expensive construction project in San Diego’s history) and new main library over all these other infrastructure needs. And he’d have the courage to talk about what sacrifice all of these things will require from us.

No matter, these discussions went on longer than I had imagined. There is true dissension from the idea that this is the city’s top priority right now.

But the task force was told to ignore this. And it will be deciding Aug. 31 whether to endorse the plans to expand the Convention Center and tell the mayor to go forward with the most costly construction project in San Diego’s history.

So let’s give them a hand. Tomorrow and for coming days, we’ll gather everything we can about that second main theme I listed in the first Plenary Session:

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?

So if you have thoughts on this that you haven’t sent (or that you think I lost!) send them along. I will try to make sense of what I can and link to the rest.


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