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Time Running Out for New Convention Center

Here are some of the undisputed facts about the convention center issue. The current facility is too small for modern convention needs. Interest rates are at an all-time low, making 2003 a good year to take out a loan. Over the past few months, the business community has reiterated these facts - and others - to convince city and county officials of the need for funding a new convention center.

There are some promises too: new housing across the river from the proposed Tower City site; as many as 5,300 new jobs, according to Cleveland Tomorrow; and more retail in Tower City. And despite abatements that usually accompany such projects, business leaders have promised the city that all of that economic activity will translate into more tax dollars for the schools. There's just one thing: not everyone believes that a new Convention Center is the key to Northeast Ohio's economic revitalization. Bobbi Richtell, a city dweller who's worked in the neighborhood development field for 25 years, says her skepticism stems from knowing that Convention Centers don't have very good track records.

Bobbi Richtell: If the business community really wants the public to shell out $400 million, then they need to give us evidence as to why it's going to work in Cleveland when it doesn't work in cities that have a better climate, longer period of the year to be getting convention goers there.

Richtell rifles through a 5-inch thick folder and pulls out articles and reports about the failure of other cities with new centers to capture the dwindling convention market - cities like Houston and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Bobbi Richtell: It's not a black or white issue, like yes or no, do a convention center. I just think there are a lot of options that are not being explored and so I think we as a community have a right to a very open planning process in the same way there's been one for the lakefront.

But there has been, according to Dennis Eckhart, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. Eckhart says the first Coopers and Lybrand analysis was in 1997. Public meetings followed every time the study was revised - the most recent update being in 2001.

Dennis Eckhart: Now I know that was a long time ago. But the fact is that the public record is replete with recommendation of then-Mayor White, then of the city planning commission, then of the Vision 2000 committee in this community in which once again, every single time we studied a convention center, we said we needed it.

Tim Hagan: Yeah, it's a good idea in the abstract.

Tim Hagan was a Cuyahoga county commissioner when Gateway was the tax issue of the day. Gateway only passed 51% to 49%, Hagan says, and that was for something the voters could directly enjoy.

Tim Hagan: When you're losing Fortune 500 companies - and we've lost the most in our region than anywhere in the country, you have to ask yourself, “Why?” Is this the best investment to try to makeover a new face for Northeast Ohio? $500 million.

Even if the investment is the way to remake the region, Hagan says, convention center advocates have a much larger problem on their hands: lack of political consensus.

City council members want the project to include funds for the neighborhoods. Inner-ring suburban mayors want to see money to bolster their infrastructure. The arts community also is expecting a share of the proposed sales tax increase. But cost overruns, like those incurred from building Browns Stadium, could jeopardize those ancillary projects.

Standing at the eastern-most point of Whiskey Island, County Commissioner Tim McCormack scans the industrial storage and gravel mountains across the Cuyahoga River that makeup the city's lakefront.

Tim McCormack: It's like looking in the mirror if you haven't been taking care of yourself. This is a dramatic view of the city from this vantage point.

Change this view to something more bucolic, McCormack says, and the region may start attracting more people that this economy needs - like the young professionals who use Whisky Island as a playground.

Tim McCormack: They will not buy into anything they do not consider to be an essential long-term investment to improve the economy of this area. So either it could be sold that way for November, or it must be reconfigured to bear it down to the essentials of job creation.

The financing package is expected to be on the agenda at tomorrow's meeting Even if the proposal does not make it to the ballot; McCormack sees that as an opportunity. He says it could give public and private interests a chance to jointly rework the prospect of a new convention center into an economic stimulus package that makes more sense to everyone involved. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.