This week, the Portland City Council will be voting whether or not to sell a public park to a private developer for the purpose of building an additional hotel convention center. Last year, the council voted to spend over $31 million in tax dollars to create the new Thompson’s Point Complex with an additional convention center.
According to the Brooking’s Institute, convention spaces across the U.S. have increased by fifty percent in the past twenty years. Over the past ten years, spending on U.S. convention spaces has doubled to $2.4 billion annually, most of which comes from public coffers. The problem is that the actual number of businesses hosting conventions has steadily fallen over the past fifteen years. Attendance at the largest 200 conventions peaked back in the mid-1990s. At the same time, developers have talked local and city governments into financing more spaces, effectively over-saturating the market.
Due to the popularity of Skype and online conferences, businesses no longer need to hold physical conferences and spend money on travel and lodging at physical conventions and meetings. If urban developers and City Council were to look at the economic failures of large investments in convention spaces, they would find examples in almost every major city that has jumped on the convention bandwagon. Major commercial centers such as New York City, Chicago, New Orleans and Atlanta have all had significant loss in convention activity, despite expansion. Even recent centers in Orlando and Las Vegas have received fewer visitors despite massive investments from taxpayers. If major cities can’t compete for remaining conferences, what chance does Portland, Maine have?
By contrast, urban developers in the U.S. are finally catching up to the reemerging trend that city planners have known for centuries- public parks create happiness, commerce, leisure, and health in congested and often polluted urban areas. Food gardens, green spaces, and fresh air are all the rage in popular parks.
During the era of “urban renewal”, Portland sold off chunks of its public parks, including Lincoln Park and Deering Oaks, in order to make room for more cars and more business on the peninsula. Unfortunately, a comparable space has never been restored and the sale of Congress Square park would be the first time that a town in Maine has sold a majority of an in town park to private developers. With the certain death of conventions, Portland developers and the City Council must stop looking to the past and start looking to our greener future.