San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he was “incredibly pleased” the other day to learn the port had approved of the Convention Center’s bizarre deal to buy a lease near the center in preparation for an eventual expansion of the facility.

It’s a type of civic layaway plan. The nonprofit that runs the Convention Center has agreed to make a deposit on the land. And, eventually, when we get around to talking about how we’ll pay for the expensive expansion, we will decide how to pay for this lease too.

It was the climax of the latest round of jabber about the convention center expansion. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen hysteria arise that Comic-Con and its 126,000 attendees may pull up its San Diego roots and relocate to some other Southern California venue. I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this worry arose in the weeks preceding a decision on this lease deal.

I’m just as sure that you can expect another bout of spontaneous worry to arise about the future of Comic-Con about four weeks before the next big decision comes in the march toward expanding the facility.

But between now and then, we shouldn’t let the discussion dissipate.

I’ve been struck by how many very reasonable people in San Diego have questioned the merits of this $753 million project.

Just Friday, I appeared on KPBS’ San Diego Week. You can see it or read the transcript here. But ignore me and consider the quote from SANDAG Economist Marney Cox:

MARNEY COX (Chief Economist, SANDAG): You have to ask yourself for whatever the money is that the public would be spending on this, what other items could it also be purchasing with that same funds. There are a laundry list of items that from the city of San Diego to all the other jurisdictions in the region today that they could list that are important to them. And we’ve seen sewer breaks, we have water shortages, we have power problems. A long laundry list of things that are perhaps more important to the residents here in the region if you tried to stack them up against how we may spend our tax dollars and what next best thing to buy for the residents that would benefit everybody.

Cox joins representatives of the tech industry, Lani Lutar from the Taxpayers Association and others who wonder if our priorities have been fully set.

And Cox touches the heart of the issue: If we’re going to spend several hundred million dollars building something to support our economy, why are we building this?

The argument that immediately comes up is usually of two parts: 1) we can still do other things! Or, 2) the money we would use cannot be used for anything else.

Let’s take the first one, that we can still do other things. OK, yes, the city is doing three other major things specifically: 1) it’s pursuing a new Chargers stadium. 2) It’s pursuing a new City Hall 3) It’s pursuing a new main library.

You can sort of make the argument that the new stadium will influence the local economy, but it’s not meant to bring in business. It’s meant as a place to watch football. The Super Bowl, yes is a big deal, but no one seriously argues that the stadium is a big economic engine. It’s a civic resource we all value to varying degrees. 

All three of these other projects will create construction jobs while they are being built. But you are a deft person if you can make the case for any of them as major investments in long-term economic growth.

They might be great things for the city, but they aren’t going to spur new businesses or create jobs that last.

This is the Convention Center’s forte. It’s supposed to be the economy horse in this stable.

As I tried to explain in a few minutes in the KPBS piece, expanding the Convention Center means fighting — with cities all across the country — for a bigger slice of a defined pie. There are only so many groups taking their members to different parts of the country to meet.

So if you spend the money for this, you might get more conventions but you’re in a cage match with other cities. They’re not going to give up their market share easily either.

Meanwhile, what we build to get that bigger slice of the pie is something only visitors really enjoy. In fact, when hundreds of thousands of conventioneers come here, it may be good for the restaurants and hotels but it can have obnoxious side effects.

On the other hand, as Cox points out, we have a whole laundry list of needs that could go to support our broader economy and the type of businesses that create good paying jobs that stay here.

And what do those businesses need? They need water. They need a smart community with broadband connections. They need an educated work force and good transportation. They need good places to live with nice parks and recreation centers.

In short, those innovative entrepreneurs and innovators need what we as residents want. Their needs correspond with ours.

Finally, let’s deal with that second argument: That we only have money for the Convention Center. This is garbage. We have a choice. One of the main sources of revenue boosters are eyeing for a Convention Center expansion is hotel-room taxes. Those flow to the city’s general fund, which pays for police, fire, parks, libraries and other amenities we all value.

The argument is that the visitor industry and its lobby would block an attempt to raise this fee for anything other than what benefits them. It’s a good argument. But why not craft, with them, a comprehensive vision for the future of the city — with water, access to information, good transportation and attractive places to gather and recreate. Perhaps part of it would go to fund a new expansion of the Convention Center, but we will have all set it as a priority among others rather than our sole focus for the local economy.

If you look at all the things we need choose to still focus and prioritize new revenues only for a new Convention Center, OK.

But there are other needs that aren’t being addressed — things that can help the economy and create jobs.

If we don’t want to pay for them, that’s fine. But don’t let anyone say we don’t have a choice.

— SCOTT LEWIS

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