Ghosts in blue jackets haunt Kansas City.
In 1996, the Future Farmers of America announced that they were taking their annual convention to Louisville, Kentucky. The news arrived like a blow to the gut. Scrubbed and polite teenagers had gathered here since 1928, when dues were a dime. A Kansas City Star columnist called their departure "a dirty, rotten, crying shame!"
The National FFA Organization (the group's official name) left for swankier meeting space and more hotel rooms. Not that Kansas City had let itself go as a convention destination. Bartle Hall expanded in 1994. A few years later, two downtown hotels opened. Banker R. Crosby Kemper even offered to put up the $365,000 that ag students demanded to help defray the costs of staging their annual barn raising.
But it wasn't enough.
And it never is.
They used to joke that the junior farmers came to town with a $10 bill and a copy of the Ten Commandments in their pockets and left without breaking either. Yet, for reasons I've never understood, city officials behave as if losing their buying power was one of the darkest days in memory.
Feeling inadequate from that breakup and other missed opportunities, Kansas City leaders keep finding convention facilities they need to build or renovate. In 2002, voters passed a new tax for an even bigger Bartle Hall. The city placed a $295 million gamble on the Power & Light District in large part to please tourists.
Now we're back to worrying about hotel space.
Last month, the City Council authorized the hiring of a consultant to look at funding a 1,000-room hotel. Speaking at a recent meeting of the Downtowners group, City Manager Wayne Cauthen said the city's existing convention hotel, the downtown Marriott, "looks a little dated."
A new convention hotel would require a sizable investment. Taxpayers could expect to pick up at least $100 million of the $300 million cost.
They could also expect to be disappointed.
There are several reasons to believe that construction of a convention hotel would not deliver on its promises. They include:
• The instant sadness created when Kansas City last built a convention hotel.
• The city's inability to afford its existing downtown hotels.
• The hideous example of St. Louis.
After hearing Cauthen speak, I went to the library to research the history of the now-dated Marriott. The hotel, known originally as the Vista International, opened in 1985 after a massive effort by the city's elite. No fewer than 32 banks, insurance companies and charities lent $35 million to pay for its construction.
Called the "Miracle on 12th Street," the 22-story hotel was expected to revive the city's dying center. But within 18 months, its owners were contemplating bankruptcy. The building was damned ugly, too. Donald Hoffman, the Star's architecture critic, called the hotel "a public embarrassment" when it opened.
Undaunted, the city continued to try to gussy up its convention district. A 1995 bond issue paid for renovations to the Marriott and a new Muehlebach Tower. Taxes generated by the hotels were supposed to retire the debt. Inadequate demand for rooms, however, has forced the city to find an additional $5 million to satisfy creditors.
What is now known as the Crowne Plaza Hotel, at 13th Street and Wyandotte, also received assistance in the form of tax-increment financing. It, too, has fallen short of projections. The city won't earn new taxes from the hotel until 2019, if the building is even standing then.
In fact, all five hotels near Bartle Hall rely on taxpayer assistance. Still, the city wants to build the ultimate behemoth in order to appeal to convention planners who demand plentiful and spiffy rooms within walking distance of exhibit halls.
Attracting conventioneers is like running on a hamster wheel. Bill Lucas, president of the Crown Center Redevelopment Corp. and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce's vice chairman for sports and tourism advocacy, acknowledged the endlessness of the task when he recently urged a City Council committee to get moving on a convention hotel.
"It doesn't stop," Lucas said. "It's an arms race. And you're either playing or you're not."
St. Louis decided to play. Like Kansas City, St. Louis has twice updated its 1970s-era convention hall. But the reboots failed to attract much new business. So a consultant — there's always a consultant — told city officials that to really compete, St. Louis needed a convention hotel.
After years of wrangling, leaders finally put together a plan to pay for a $265 million, 1,000-room hotel. The Renaissance St. Louis Grand & Suites Hotel opened in 2003.
Alas, the streets did not swell with conventioneers. Bookings remained flat.
Without the additional convention trade it was supposed to create, the hotel has struggled to meet its obligations. Moody's Investors Service, after downgrading the project's bonds, said last year that a bankruptcy filing may be inevitable.
Of course, in the convention racket, success is always just around the corner. In 2006, the consultants came back to St. Louis and suggested that the Renaissance add a ballroom. The money for the ballroom would have to come, naturally, from "government entities."
A year ago, Kansas City's consultant, a Minnesota outfit called CSL International, presented a report showing passenger air travel and hotel demand trending downward. Nevertheless, CSL recommended that Kansas City pursue a "true" convention hotel in order to leverage the money invested in the Power & Light District and the new-and-improved Bartle Hall — which were, at one time, supposed to be the last pieces of the convention puzzle. It's a business, it seems, in which you spend money to spend money.
Cities continue to amass new facilities and entertainment districts, even though the convention trade is stagnant. The insanity of this proposition seems obvious. "At some point, somebody has to jump off the merry-go-round," a financial consultant told a St. Louis Post-Dispatch business columnist last December.
As for the FFA, the organization broke hearts again in January, when it omitted Kansas City from its list of possible convention sites for 2013-19. The FFA meets this fall in Indianapolis, having abandoned Louisville due to a lack of a hotel rooms.
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