Heywood Sanders

Heywood Sanders

Who is Heywood Sanders?

He occupied a starring role as one of two experts in the Voice of OC extremely skeptical coverage of the Anaheim Convention Center expansion; and it was largely on Sanders’ views that Mayor Tom Tait based his opposition to the proposed expansion project.

It’s quickly apparent from a Google search that Sanders, a professor of public administration at the University of Texas’ San Antonio campus, is on a one-man crusade against municipal convention centers, flying all over the country to testify at city council meetings against plans to build or expand convention centers.

He carved out a voice-in-the-wilderness niche for himself with the publication of this Brookings Institution white paper in 2005, and it appears he’s never met a convention center proposal he didn’t dislike. Sanders’ contention then and now is that the convention center industry is overbuilt – and his views have fueled the critical coverage in the Voice of OC (“EXPERTS: ANAHEIM’S CONVENTION GAMBLE SURE TO FAIL”).

Sanders makes some valid points, but they are far more germane to attempts by smaller cities to jump-start a convention business in their communities. In his 2005 study, Sanders admits as much:

Today, a broad cross-section of American cities from Richmond, VA to Peoria, IL; Jackson, MS to Tacoma, WA have or are investing millions of public dollars in the quest for convention center success.

They are pursuing an economic development strategy that has already failed in dozens of cities, and holds little prospect of succeeding in most. With the possible exception of a handful of major cities that have long dominated the national and regional economies and a very small number of prime visitor destinations like Orlando and Las Vegas, the grand promises of convention center investment are unlikely to be realized, the strategy doomed to failure.

Anaheim isn’t Peoria or Jackson or Tacoma or Richmond. It has been a prime visitor destination since the 1950s, and will continue to be one. Conventions and trade shows will still be looking for locations that suit their needs, and major destinations like Anaheim will continue to compete for their business. That’s not changing.

This excerpt from this 2006 Successful Meetings article on Sanders puts his views in the proper context vis-a-vis Anaheim:

Some of the most positive comments about Sanders’ research come from trade show managers themselves. Perhaps this isn’t surprising—unlike industry association leaders, they have less motivation for promoting the overall state of conventions and, if anything, they tend to benefit from an oversupply of exhibit space. Peter Nathan of Exhibicon International in Westport, CT, for example, calls Sanders “wrong about the major cities but right about the smaller cities. The third-tier destinations will have a tough time getting business to fill the facilities they’ve built.”

Anaheim is a major city and a major destination, not a third-tier destination like Peoria or Jackson.

Due diligence and healthy skepticism are good attitudes for the city council to bring to bear on proposals like the Anaheim Convention Center expansion – but they aren’t ends in themselves, and local electeds should guard against letting healthy skepticism morph into mental habit of letting the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good.

The expansion plan isn’t perfect – but what is? It is very, very good and the City Council was wise to approve it.