It was just about a year ago that Kansas City put on its Sunday best for visitors from the Republican National Committee. The GOP was looking for a place to hold its 2016 convention, and KC was on the list.
The city put up a good fight. But in the end, fireworks and Dick Cheney weren’t enough. The Republicans picked Cleveland.
“The reason given for the decision should be a lack of downtown hotels. Period,” one disappointed local consultant wrote colleagues on the convention committee. “Please stick to this messaging.”
They did, and they still are.
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Mayor Sly James and others said repeatedly Monday that Kansas City needs to subsidize a new downtown hotel to reverse an erosion in convention business. But it isn’t clear that decline can be blamed solely on the lack of quality hotel rooms.
Organizations pick convention cities on a number of other factors — climate, travel convenience, cost, entertainment. Taxpayers should always be wary of if-we-build-it-they-will-come projections, for hotels or anything else requiring a public subsidy.
The Republicans decided to go to Cleveland because it’s in presidentially crucial Ohio, not because its hotels are bigger or better. There’s no guarantee the GOP would have come to Kansas City even if a new hotel had opened here five or 10 years ago.
Kansas City has some history with this. Bartle Hall was expanded in the 1990s, but convention business actually dropped. The Sprint Center was supposed to bring a professional sports franchise — it hasn’t, although it’s doing well financially. The Power and Light District still can’t pay its own way. Union Station once struggled. The streetcar jury is still out.
In 2006, Jackson County voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars for upgrades at the Truman Sports Complex. Did those improvements prompt the recent upsurge in the Royals’ attendance, or is it better play on the field? To ask the question is to answer it.
That’s why much of Kansas City’s political community has reacted to the big hotel announcement with a collective sigh. Only one council member was on hand for Monday’s big show, an indication office-holders think their constituents are in a show-me mood. The rush to push the project through the lame-duck council also suggests a desire to avoid making hotel subsidies a campaign issue this spring.
Kansas City officials say they’ve done their best to reduce taxpayer risk on the hotel project. That’s good, because the hotel project is pretty risky.