Center expansion being held hostage; Governor is shooting us, and himself, in the foot by delaying funds

Philadelphia Daily News

October 25, 2004

Page 15

THE PENNSYLVANIA Convention Center is once again being held hostage.

This is not exactly news for a building that must have an invisible “kidnap me” sign painted on its roof. This time, it’s not the unions that are imperiling the center’s potential by alienating customers and staging walkouts, as they have in the past.

This time, the hostage-taker is Gov. Rendell, who earlier this week said that although the Legislature has approved money for expansion of the Convention Center – $632 million that will be covered by both capital budget and gaming revenues – he’s not writing any checks until the center gets “professional management.”

Translation: Get rid of the center’s chief executive, Al Mezzaroba, a political appointee with no track record in the industry.

In any other state, and in any other town, this might not appear so unreasonable. The center expansion will make it one of the biggest in the country, and given the absence of industry pros on the board of directors, building the bench strength on the operations side is a good idea. So why are we calling this hostage-taking?

Let us count the ways:

1. The center just hired a roster of convention center pros, among them: Dittie Guise, who presided over the expansion of the Columbus, Ohio, convention center, and Harry Perks, who was the center’s first executive director and who helped build the original and who has been hired to oversee the expansion project.

2. The governor has not said exactly what skills are missing from the team, and what’s at stake if we don’t get them. Not that Mezzaroba, who is there by dint of political connections, is the best CEO for the job. But if the CEO job is a political placeholder, then who would be better?

Nor has the governor acknowledged that the current team has, in fact, successfully steered the center through a tough and complicated chapter, and despite a history of the worst kind of strife, is poised to expand.

3. It smells bad. Fumo foe John Dougherty, electrician’s union head, has repeatedly called for Mezzaroba’s head; in the next breath, he talks about his alliance with the governor. Does the governor want Mezzaroba ousted to make Dougherty happy? In that case, it’s a political move, using the ultimate political hammer. That doesn’t seem like depoliticizing the center to us.

4. It costs more. The expansion relies on a tight timeline of property acquisition, demolition and construction. Delays in finding a new CEO will cost more taxpayer money.

Delays will also cost more customers, many of whom are waiting to book in a bigger center.

5. It looks bad. This is the most important reason why this hostage-taking is ill-timed. The center doesn’t need yet another public melodrama to turn people away, especially on the eve of an expensive expansion designed to attract even bigger clients.

We put this reason last on purpose; unfortunately, too many people involved in the center put customers last as a matter of course. The governor’s action is a message to customers that once again, they come last, and that the center can’t get out of its own way to keep its eye on what’s really important: customers, who book the center and help keep the economic engine that is the center running.

Sure, we know money is power. Rendell has the money, so he’s got the power. But it’s not just the building being held hostage. It’s the future of the city, the region, and everyone in it.

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