Recently, the Atlantic Cities published an article, Is it Time to Stop Building Convention Centers? by Amanda Erickson, highlighting the shortcomings of using convention centers as drivers of economic development. Erickson followed this article up with a piece on Buffalo’s convention center and the uncertainty surrounding its future. In Buffalo, it appears that continuing to allocate money towards ensuring its convention center remains competitive with other conventions centers would be a losing investment. Given Erickson’s findings in her first article on convention centers, Buffalo may be the norm rather than an exception.
This begs the question, what should cities in Buffalo’s position do with their convention centers? Convention centers have large wide-open spaces as well as technological infrastructure, such as the internet and presentation equipment (gotta have these things to host large groups of professionals making presentations to each other). These features are conducive to convention centers being re-purposed as incubators for start-ups or as innovation labs.
Buildings with large open areas are perfect for start up incubators and innovation labs. They allow easy interaction between different organizations, which helps spur creativity and collaboration. Furthermore, the open layout of convention centers can be used to attract innovators by allowing them to decide how their space will look and feel. In addition, the large size of convention centers means that these buildings can provide innovators with public spaces to network, make presentations to clients, and more. Thus, convention centers have the capacity to be more than just incubators, they can be one-stop innovation hubs.
In addition, cities can offer start-ups and entrepreneurs low rental rates in convention centers: it seems plausible that a convention center receiving small, consistent rents from a large group of people will be able to sustain itself given convention centers have traditionally operated solely off revenues from one or two large events over a prolonged period. This combination of low rents, easy access to other organizations, tech infrastructure, and flexible space should make convention centers extremely desirable to innovators, entrepreneurs, and start-ups.
The need for cities to attract innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs has been widely written about policymakers, urban policy enthusiasts, and academics. Convention centers present an opportunity for cities to leverage their current resources to attract these drivers of economic vitality.
In Costner’s Field of Dreams, they said “if you build it, they will come.” Well, cities already built it, now they just need to transform it.