It was one of those days when it seemed that nothing made sense to us.

On one hand, there were reports that the Wharton Administration was softening on the completion of Beale Street Landing, and on the other, there was a City Councilman suggesting that residents of the smaller towns in Shelby County shouldn’t have the right to vote on city-county consolidation.

According to The Commercial Appeal, the Wharton Administration thinks we need a new $500 million convention center.

According to the Memphis Daily News, the Wharton Administration suggests that we don’t need to spend the $9 million to complete Beale Street Landing right.

Déjà vu All Over Again

We guess our math skills just aren’t good enough to understand the calculus.  In the great scheme of things, Beale Street Landing will have more impact on tourism than a new convention center.  And we can actually afford it.

As Smart City Memphis contributor John Lawrence wrote so convincingly a few days ago, it’s time to finish Beale Street Landing according to the winning designs by an outstanding Argentine architectural firm.

We have trouble believing that the Wharton Administration won’t support the $9 million to complete the project.  After all, it’s like déjà vu for Mayor A C Wharton.  When he was elected county mayor in 2002, he inherited a FedExForum cloaked in controversy and with emotional calls for it to be scaled back.  But rather than yield to ideas that would have diminished the quality of the arena, he continued on, and as a result, FedExForum was convincing proof of the wisdom of doing public projects first-class and high-quality.

In raising the issue of a new convention center, it was said that Memphis needs it to attract more tourists.  There’s no argument that the bread and butter for our “hospital industry” is tourism, and that’s why the idea of a new convention center needs more examination.  It’s not about attracting tourists.  It’s about attracting conventions.  There’s a big difference.

Arms Race

Of course, we’re not alone in this talk about a new convention center.  Even as think tanks dispute claims that convention centers are wise public investments, cities continue to escalate the competition to see who can spend the most and build the biggest. A new convention center proposed in Nashville is now projected to cost more than half a billion dollars, and city boosters are pushing the new building as if the future of Middle Tennessee hangs in the balance.

In recent years, about 40 cities have built new convention centers or expanded existing ones, totaling about $2.4 billion in public funding a year. It’s no surprise that in just over a 10-year period, convention space increased 51 percent (even as attendance declined).

Dreams of being a convention destination run deep in cities everywhere, and in pursuit of these dreams, promises and projections are more and more extravagant, like the ones for new hotel room nights in Richmond that ended up being off by two-thirds. Such overstatements are more the rules than the exception when it comes to convention centers.

Most remarkable of all, all these new facilities have come on line despite declines in conventions. Most of all, not even the most vocal supporter would argue that these buildings really do anything to address poverty, loss of middle class families, workforce challenges and population loss.

Unvarnished Facts

Rather than beginning with the assumption that Memphis does indeed need a new or expanded convention center, what would really be valuable for Memphis is an independent, objective market study (and not by the cadre of convention center cheerleading consultants who regularly churn out Pollyannish projections).  We need to know what Memphis’ niche can really be.  Perhaps, we’ll never be a convention center like Nashville, so we need to find out how to find our distinctive niche and leverage it as capably as we can.

After all, if the past is the best predictor of the future, a new convention center could be underperforming and disappointing. Perhaps, with a clear-eyed, skeptical analysis of our realistic opportunities, we can in fact finally find a position in the convention industry that makes sense.

There is one thing on which we can surely all agree: It is hard to find a major convention center that provides an experience that is as dismal and unappealing as ours. Built apparently from German bunker blueprints and with the attendant lack of charm, the convention center cannot create the same kind of ambiance as the striking glass and steel centers that open to the surrounding urban fabric of its city.

It’s the difference in a building that looks outward and one that turns inward. Unfortunately, for us, Memphis Cook Convention Center looks inward with a vengence, and as a result, there is no connectivity with the city that it serves.

Payday Someday

However, the hard part is figuring out how to pay for it.  The hotel-motel tax is already stretched to the breaking point, and it’s almost certain that new tax sources would be needed to pay the massive price tag that this project would have. In fact, if a new convention center is built, its cost will easily surpass the public building project that was previously the most expensive – FedEx Forum.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, City Council member Janis Fullilove was full of anything but love toward the county towns.  She’s ready to ask for a Tennessee Attorney General’s opinion on whether the towns should even have the right to vote on the proposed merger of city-county governments.  But she said she’s not being “mean spirited,” just “fair.”

It gives fairness a whole new meaning.  Just imagine if the shoe were on the other foot.  The county towns had decided that they wanted to merge with Shelby County but they didn’t think Memphis should vote on it.  We suspect that the Councilwoman would be up in arms.

Taxation Without Representation

Here’s the small fact that she seems to overlook: Residents of the towns pay county taxes, so they should of course have a vote on the future of that government.  To suggest otherwise is obtuse.

From an earlier position of saying a dual referenda to reform local government structure is a violation of “one man, one vote” for Memphians, she now thinks “one man, no vote” is fair for the towns. It’s bad enough that there are some of our favorite loose cannons – like Council member Fullilove, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy and former judge D’Army Bailey —  think the rules should be changed in the middle of the game to take away the dual referenda requirement in the Tennessee Constitution, but all of this distracts us from the current discussion about merging city-county governments.

Then again, it’s possible that even if some attorney filed a lawsuit, we’re told that a judge would be reluctant to postpone the scheduled November vote on a new government.  We hope so, because some of us really want to talk about what a new, improved government could look like.

Let’s go ahead with the scheduled referenda and if there’s going to be a debate about the law governing metro government, let’s have it next year (if the vote this year fails).