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Convention Center Follies: Politics, Power, and Public Investment in American Cities, Heywood T. Sanders

Reviewed by Matthew P. Drennan

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This book presents an important story about misguided local and state expenditures for new or expanded convention centers. It is a bigger story than the more widely known success of fabulously wealthy professional sports teams in persuading strapped local governments to build new stadiums. It is bigger because the number of U.S. local governments involved and the dollars spent dwarf what I would call the stadium scam. In the second half of the twentieth century, cities, counties, and states engaged in a race for bigger and better convention centers lest they lose out to competitors. In an arms race, there are no winners. But here there are winners, namely, some landlords and consultants.

Here in a nutshell is the sad story laid out in this book: With the end of the Great Depression of the 1930s and then World War II, American cities sought to upgrade the built environment. Alarmed by massive shift to the suburbs and growing slums in or near central business districts, mayors acted to preserve and protect the center. In this, they were unfortunately aided and abetted by federal urban renewal dollars. Traditional local government infrastructure spending was funded by general obligation bonds (the issuer must pay from any revenue source). But the issuance of such bonds required voter approval, which became more difficult to win after Proposition 13 in Califor

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