Downtown San Diego has a smoke-filled back room where the boys play liar’s poker. Their chips are provided gratis by naive taxpayers who have been deliberately lied to for years. “In San Diego, by the time the public finds out about something, it’s been on the planning board for five or ten years,” says former councilwoman Donna Frye.
That cogently describes the planned convention center expansion. From the beginning, it has depended upon a conspiracy of misinformation cooked up by downtown boosters, political leaders, so-called consultants, the construction and tourism industries, the mainstream media, and others who have favored the project for a long time but pretend to be gathering facts before making a decision.
Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is a Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins with a PhD from Harvard. He has written numerous scholarly articles on overbuilding in the convention center industry, including an influential 2005 piece for the Brookings Institution, now being updated.
Typically for San Diego, Mayor Jerry Sanders, in wangling for the convention center expansion, appointed a “stacked-deck committee — the conclusion was foregone,” says Steve Erie, political scientist at the University of California San Diego. “They had decided to expand but just needed the numbers to justify it.” Amazingly, one member of that committee said taxpayers might be suspicious of any statistics it would generate. So in 2009, San Diego uncharacteristically invited a scholar to address the committee whom Erie identifies as “the ranking expert in the field”: Heywood Sanders.
That expert immediately told two officials of the convention center that its statistics were “seriously inflated,” recalls Erie, who overheard the conversation. Heywood Sanders pointed out to the Reader how the convention center was cooking the books: one method was claiming that substantially all attendees at Comic-Con and the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon were out-of-towners spending at least four days in local hotels — obviously false. The downtown boosters permitted Heywood Sanders to talk for a brief period. One committee member sneeringly asked if the professor had ever been inside a convention center. Steve Johnson, the public relations director for the center, called Heywood Sanders “a whack job.”
It’s no surprise that one of San Diego’s most prominent financial experts, when asked to characterize his adopted city, responds with one word, “Mayberry.” That’s the rural Southern hamlet of television fame.
A consultant named AECOM provided the committee with what it wanted: statistics and rhetoric purporting to show that the convention center would be a financial boon to San Diego. AECOM used numbers generated by the convention center.
Mayor Jerry Sanders came out with an eyebrow-arching (even for him) statement: the convention center expansion would produce $121 million in new hotel-room revenue each year and create a whopping $16 million in hotel-tax revenues. Andrea Tevlin, independent budget analyst, peered into the mayor’s stunning forecast. She said that estimated new room revenue would be $50 million, and the additional hotel-tax revenue would be $5.2 million to $9.7 million. Her figures were a long way from Mayor Sanders’s. She informed councilmembers, the mayor’s office, hotel-industry representatives, and the public of this vast discrepancy.
Last December, Heywood Sanders found even more examples of the San Diego Convention Center cooking its books. Studying a sample of events, the professor noted that the center would estimate attendance at a future convention and the number of hotel room nights that would result. The actual attendance would often be much lower than forecast. But the convention center would keep the room nights the same as it had previously estimated. Thus, it was systematically overstating hotel room nights and, also, therefore, hotel-tax receipts, attendee spending, and the center’s impact on the local economy. The Reader reported this convention-center disingenuousness December 14. The center had no comment — before or after the column appeared.
Civic activist Mel Shapiro sent the column to the city auditor’s fraud hotline, complaining that the convention center has been misstating the number of hotel room accommodations to justify the planned $550 million expansion.
City Auditor Eduardo Luna reported August 21 that Shapiro’s and Heywood Sanders’s allegations were true. “The San Diego Convention Center Corporation misstated hotel room-night statistics in its annual reports and AECOM report,” reported Luna. “Any discrepancy in published figures for attendance and/or hotel room-nights casts doubt on the veracity of all statistics reported.” In short, as Heywood Sanders says, a bloated room-night figure distorts other claims by the center, such as impact on the local economy.
Luna says the statistical misstatements have not been made intentionally. But it’s well known that Luna is in the mayor’s doghouse for being honest. Erie and I have both followed the City much longer than Luna. I agree with Erie when he says that in San Diego, “Cooking the books is an art form. Everything here is cooked.”
Says Heywood Sanders, “This is one of the sad things about San Diego: an obvious history of misrepresentation.”
Tevlin says the mayor’s numbers are “overstated,” but she still believes the center expansion “will produce economic benefits for the City and region through increases in the number and size of conventions and related visitor spending.”
But will that turn out to be true? Heywood Sanders estimates that convention center space expanded by 33.7 percent nationally between 2000 and 2010 while attendance was dropping slightly. The Wall Street Journal says space has gone up somewhat less while attendance was dropping very sharply. In any case, San Diego would be expanding into a glut.
San Diego’s mainstream media play along by publishing boosters’ propaganda without analysis and ignoring news that might upset the apple cart.
By contrast, consider Charlotte, North Carolina. Citizens there are now learning that visitor spending and employment from conventions are about half what the local convention center has been claiming. The major newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, made these revelations. Would the U-T ever expose the convention center’s phony numbers? ■