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Bookings fall at Philadelphia convention center

Study blames union bickering, cost overuns

Sunday, July 07, 2002

By The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Nine years after fanfare and accolades marked the dedication of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, touted as a key step in the city's revitalization, bookings continue to drop amid complaints of hostile unions and cost overruns.

"If the center can't make itself more competitive, it impacts everything ... hotels, restaurants, the awareness of the city among conventioneers -- many who come back as tourists -- as well as tax revenue," said David Crawford of Econsult Corp., a consulting firm that last month released a critical report. "It doesn't have to (close down) to have an impact."

At its dedication on June 26, 1993, Vice President Al Gore called the downtown center "a building block of the revitalization of Philadelphia." As marching bands played and confetti flew, then-Mayor Edward G. Rendell and other city officials cheered the $522 million facility as paving Philadelphia's path as a "destination city."

The current scenario is far less bright, according to the report by Econsult, which is associated with the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and commissioned by the Convention Center Authority to assess the facility's competitiveness.

The center is almost fully booked this year but future bookings are much lower than they should be.

Two years ago, for example, the center was 83 percent booked for 2002. Looking forward two years to 2004, the center is only 55 percent booked -- and it gets worse in 2005 and beyond.

"The board has several options regarding the report, but rejection is not an option," Convention Center Authority Chairman Bernard C. Watson said in a statement.

Exhibitors interviewed by the researchers said they liked the city and the facility, but nearly all said labor was "inefficient, hostile, or both," the report noted.

"The bottom line is that the [center's] labor situation is perceived as the worst encountered anywhere in the country at this time," the report states, "and customers can avoid it entirely by simply choosing another venue."

However, the problem isn't "union vs. nonunion," Crawford said. Many convention centers are unionized and are able to avoid the kinds of problems that have earned Philadelphia's facility a negative reputation nationwide, he said.

The solution lies largely in getting the different unions working in the center to cooperate instead of fighting with each other over who's responsible for what -- bickering that wastes time, increases costs and trickles down to convention organizers, Crawford said.

Otherwise, the center runs the risk of attracting only military, educational, religious and social organizations -- groups that traditionally don't spend big bucks on hotels and restaurants.

"All of our people have embraced the fundamental tenets of the report," said Patrick Gillespie, business manager of the Building Trades Council, which represents four unions at the center. "We'll aggressively work toward the objectives of a seamless work force and a satisfied customer, and fix the things that obstruct that."

Meantime, political conflicts of interest have led the center's newly appointed director to withdraw from the job and two members of the authority to abstain from casting votes, pending a review by state officials.

Getting its house in order could go a long way toward the convention authority's goal to get the state Legislature to appropriate $232 million to double the size of the million-square-foot facility. Supporters say the center is too small to compete with newer, larger ones.

"There won't be a cure overnight," Crawford said. "But the problems could be fixed quite quickly, if the will is there."

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