How to waste money in an age of none: Edifice Complexes
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How to waste money in an age of none: Edifice Complexes














Once Convention, Two Convention, Three Convention, Floor
Albuquerque, Lancaster, Charlotte

When it comes to urban redevelopment issues, nothing sticks like a truism that is no longer true.  Government as real estate tycoon comes to mind.

Since the late 1960s, any city worth its salt and a modicum of other people's money (yes, yours), knows that they are simply one project away from turning the supertanker around and avoiding the rocks.

It used to be government buildings: they would "turn around" the city of Albany New York, and also to satisfy Nelson Rockefeller's edifice complex, an entire stable neighborhood was wiped out.  The resulting pile of marble provides New York State workers a place to sit during the day before they lock their car doors and bolt from the underground garages and straight onto the interstates and back into the burbs, courtesy of a half-mile long superhighway that runs into the guts of the whole place.  

By the late 1960s, citizens in neighborhoods had just about had enough.  In any case, the action was streaming into the new suburbs.

In the 70s and 80s, the urban renewal siren song devolved into publicly funded sports arenas, anchor projects and convention centers, with the Johnny-come-lately casinos in the late 1990s.

Using the same logic as building casinos (Hey, if they make $1 billion in Las Vegas, we can make $1 billion in Uncasville Connecticut!), convention centers strode across not only our biggest cities, but also medium cities in remote places. The business models prepared by the consultants always predicted hundreds of thousands of excited conventioneers faces flushed with excitement throwing money into the city unabated forever.

Well, no.

Like any human or economic activity, convention centers depend on assumptions of continued growth and continued prosperity.  The great recession has put paid to that vision; I

In fact as Stephen Malanga helpfully pointed out in 2011, the over-saturation of the convention market was already a fact of life before 2007.  Happily, edifice complexes are something left and right can both agree stink; both major newspapers in Boston for example have covered the madness of Boston's expansion in recent years.  

In 2012, with the market as overbuilt as it is, the only way for the magical thinking to proceed is now to have the equivalent of a knife fight in a dark alleyway between cities, as they double down on spending taxpayers money to offer monopoly and privilege to the crony capital sectors and the union sectors.  The new game is to provide "sweeteners" to artificially lower the price and attract what convention businesses left.

Real economic development cannot be sustained by wild injections of money into an environment that is demonstrably and permanently past its prime.  It takes a stable tax system, respect for law, and patience.

These kinds of stories are the gifts that keep giving to the many people on both sides of the aisle and of all political philosophies who wish for markets to work, and for broad-based prosperity for all, and not just a chosen few.  

"Turning around the city" one project at a time will be fertile compost for future postings.  
Next: "If we fix up the old movie house, why gosh, the whole city will spring back to life!":  
The Pittsfield Massachusetts story.


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