by David Martin
City officials are working hard to justify the investment in the Power & Light District in the face of a grim financial outlook, the subject of this week's column.
Councilwoman Cindy Circo put on her hard hat and described the struggling bond issue on her blog as a $150 million sewer project."The improvements above ground are just icing on the cake," she wrote. Opining in The Kansas City Star, Councilman Russ Johnson went the Downtown Comes Alive! route, touting attendance figures at the Sprint Center and Bartle Hall. Johnson noted that convention business from May through July is up 28 percent from last year. What Johnson didn't say was that 2009, his baseline for comparison, was a pretty lousy year for conventions.
Kansas City hosted 32 major conventions in 2009, a fall-off from 2008 (37) and 2007 (38). One of the gatherings that went missing in '09 was the Wal-Mart Stores convention. The Wal-Mart hootenanny lasted for two weeks in January, not a time of year when exhibitors are tripping over themselves to book rooms inside Bartle Hall.
The Power & Light District was designed to appeal to conventioneers, but other big shows are following Wal-Mart out of town. Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart subsidiary, moved its twice yearly meetings from Kansas City to Arkansas in order to save money. SkillsUSA, the competition for blazer-clad vocational-ed students, is going to Louisville in 2015.
To be sure, the entertainment district is a nice feature to offer convention planners. But conventions are tough to land because cities across the U.S. have overbuilt their capacity to host them. The three-month improvement that Johnson highlighted may be fleeting.