Connecticut officialdom will assemble Thursday for the grand opening of Hartford’s new, publicly subsidized convention center: Adriaen’s Landing.Yet many national experts warn that the economics of urban renewal ultimately doom such projects. Chief among these skeptics is Heywood Sanders, a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Texas San Antonio. He talked to ctnewsjunkie.com about what we can expect from Adriaen’s. His forecast? Gloomy.(Click “more” to read the interview. For Ken Krayeske’s commentary on the subject, check out his column at the 40-Year Plan.)
How long have you been studying this problem?I’ve been looking at Convention Centers in detail since the late 1990s. But way back in grad school in the 1970s, I did my doctoral thesis on the federal urban renewal program. I saw what cities like Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven and Springfield all sought to do in the name of urban renewal and redevelopment.I can remember when the Jailai Fronton was going to save downtown Bridgeport.Looking at Bridgeport and Joe Ganim, and Connecticut and John Rowland, is it me or does it seem that this style of big-box development breeds corruption?When we talk about the interface between government and business, we are talking about a place where there is a great deal of money at stake, and great expectations as well. When you put these together, there is often corruption. What we know historically is that the embedded interests for public building – the contractors, the developers, the professionals (architects, civil engineers, lawyers, financial advisors), all have a stake in seeing public projects happen. And many of those projects involve the business of land development and redevelopment. That is not unique to Hartford or Connecticut, it is remarkably pervasive. It is in many ways exactly what is going on in the West Side of Manhattan in New York with the possibility of a massive stadium for the Jets next to an expanded Jacob Javitts Convention Center.You will see the same kind of politics played out in downtown Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles as have been played out in Hartford around Adriaen’s Landing.Do we even need to save downtown? What if we let the invisible hand of the market run its course?It is tough to fight the market. The market is the market. If gasoline is cheap, people will buy vehicles that consume lots of gas. When housing is cheaper and newer and perceived as more desirable on the fringe, people are more likely to be there, particularly when we have a system that makes public services better and more affordable at the edge of the urban area. When it comes to a city and a downtown, you face that same set of market forces. It doesn’t mean every downtown in the country is doomed. It does mean that the larger problems are what have to be dealt with, managed and overcome and that takes time, energy, commitment and imagination, not the cookie cutter approach. The sad thing we find as we find exemplified in Rowland’s six pillars, when state government gets involved in this, it faces a need to do not one project but many. What happened in the case of Massachusetts, the new Boston convention and exhibition center that arose in South Boston was accompanied on its final trip though the legislature by funding for new and expanded convention facilities in Worcester and Springfield and money for the Basketball Hall of Fame, and funding for more civic facilities around the state.Legislation in Washington State has provided for the development of a half-dozen convention centers in the state of Washington itself. What often happens in cases like this, the state government in its desire to provide something for every part of the state creates even more competition. It sounds crazy.From the point of view of policymaking and process, it’s crazy. From the point of view of politics, it is exactly what we expect.What is promising for Hartford?Some places can succeed, and some have done well. It is a difficult and not predictable process. It’s about letting the market do its thing, and see what happens. We have seen some cities succeed by investing in arts and cultural facilities. We have seen other cities that have had their economic ups and downs. Boston is one that comes to mind. They have succeeded in part because they had the infrastructure of human capital – the universities and educational and research and medical institutions and the educated population that are what is required for competition in the global marketplace. Certainly Hartford lacks that.And that is the problem. There are no easy answers to that problem. For some cities the cycle of poor services, inadequate schools, etc doesn’t provide the environment to attract and retain the kind of people who make for a flexible, adaptable urban future. It’s like the Brass Mill Mall replacing the world’s largest brass mills of the early 20th century. That is the great thing. We can see that evolution throughout New England and the northeast – an evolution that went through manufacturing, exemplified by Hartford and New Haven and the armaments industry. But we also saw textile and clothing manufacturing and shoe manufacturing move. We know historically that is the kind of economic change that happens, so partly we need the capacity for cities to reinvent themselves on a regular basis.That’s not too easily done.If you look at the history of New England, the textile mills that line New England river valleys ended up moving to the south, and they have long since left the southern U.S. to places where power is abundant and labor is far cheaper. The nature of capital is to move freely across borders. That is the question – what can you build on? How can you make the city work, where people interact and make a living? The great difficulty for a place like Hartford is that it is trying to build its economic future on having to import thousands of visitors year in and year out over the next decade or two or three.I think we all should understand now that what once might have seen an easy thing to understand and predict is no longer. When I go and pick up a copy of the market and financial analysis of a convention center at Adriaen’s Landing, done for CCEDA in January 2000 and posed the question- has anything happened to change the market for travel and convention and trade shows since January 2000? I think the answer is a lot.I don’t think there is a question that the convention center business has changed. The analysis done here says demand for convention and trade show space has grown steadily in past two decades. In that same article, it says Trade Show Week predicts demand for convention center space will average 4 percent growth through 2000.What about 2010?There’s the problem. For Hartford’s sake I hope I am wrong, but I think it is clear that convention center can’t do the business it is projected to do. Are there any cities that have found adaptive reuses for these convention centers? In an email to me, you said to look at the Hartford Civic Center or the New Haven Coliseum for answers. And I don’t see any creative reuses of these structures.That’s exactly the point. The politics of redeveloping Hartford, which began in the early 1950s with the razing of Front Street, which became Constitution Plaza; the model of that never stops. You are looking at a system designed to revitalize downtown where if that revitalization fails, as in many ways it has in Hartford, New Haven, and elsewhere, what it spurs is another variant on the same thing. So that if you go back and look at Gov. Rowland’s Six Pillars, the kinds of projects he was talking about, what you see is literally is one new revitalization after a another, often at intervals of 10 or 15 years, almost every one of which has had a similar outcome.Take a look at urban renewal and revitalization in New Haven, including the Chapel Square Mall project, which was a mess from another urban renewal era, what you see is kind of one project, built on what was then the best, most thoughtful, urban policymaking of the time, albeit in retrospect quite flawed, and when those fail what you get is more.What cities have been able to break out of this addictive cycle and how have they done it?I am somewhat hard pressed to come up with cities that have succeeded in this.If you look at it, the large-scale phenomena, that shape and define this, and the larger political environment that defines this are pervasive. We have a society that is automobile based in which land and housing are cheaper, newer and cleaner at
the urban fringe, and as people move, so have stores and retail activities.But what you have now is that the public sector as an investor has replaced the private sector in downtown. The dynamic of the loss of retail, office buildings and jobs, has been going on in American downtowns for a long time. Many cities have sought to replace that large-scale change with tourism. The strategy that Hartford is employing in seeking to attract conventioneers to the city from some distance is precisely the same strategy dozens of others of cities around the country are pursuing with what are often very very mixed results.What do you think of the chances for success of the residential development at Trumbull Towers and the old Civic Center?I am not in Hartford, I can’t with any great success describe the market potential of a specific residential development. This is a strategy being employed by a number of cities. It depends on folks already in Hartford. The strategy is not to bring people from out of town, but to build on folks in the area. A residential strategy has its own inherent problems and limitations. Part of the difficulty is cost and depth of the market. Downtown residential demand depends in part on job location. To the extent that Hartford is losing downtown employment, its capacity to fill those new apartment towers and keep them filled is open to question. That kind of development is being marketed to a pretty small swath of the marketplace: generally to young single or married couples without children. For families with kids, the quality of public services, particularly public education, becomes really quite central. And so if the basics aren’t in place, if you don’t have high quality public services, you’re not going to get families and you run the risk of not keeping the folks that you do succeed in getting.What is a winning strategy? If I knew, I’d bottle it and charge a fortune for it, selling it to every city in the country. The bottom line is you have to find the strength, the market, the place for Hartford. But the last thing it makes sense to do is exactly the same thing everybody else is doing, more and faster around the country.There are some places that are simply far better equipped to compete. Las Vegas with 130,000 hotel rooms can generate a far greater volume of advertising and marketing to build a convention city. So can Orlando.How do we convince legislators and public officials to change direction?It’s a difficult thing to do, when you are looking at a process that is often driven by local business interests. If we continue to seek big one shot silver bullet solutions to complex long standing problems, in ways that commonly avoid public input, involvement or review, this is what you get.Sadly, it’s not just Hartford, in many ways it’s not news. It happens in a great many places. Cities don’t seem willing or able to learn from their competitors, other cities around the country.And what happens when Hartford takes a convention from Providence? Dandy for us, but not so good for Providence. If you look on the web, Springfield is about to witness the opening of their expanded convention center. Presumably they will hope to take business from you. That is the way the world works among cities. There is enormous competition to do that.