Center of a political storm

Gov. Rendell wants to tip the expanding Convention Center's balance of power back toward Harrisburg.

Posted: September 30, 2007

It's called the Pennsylvania Convention Center - and, if Gov. Rendell gets his way, it may soon live up to its name.

Five years ago, political maneuvering in Harrisburg tipped the balance of power at the building - on hiring, contracting and other decisions - away from the governor and mayor, and into the hands of Philadelphia's Republican-dominated suburbs.

Now Rendell, a Democrat in his final term, is moving unabashedly to restore the state's authority in running the mammoth center.

And he's doing so aided by the biggest of sticks: the $700 million that the state committed for expansion.

The governor has handed a to-do list of what he has in mind to the center's 15-member governing board, detailing how the state should have a say on personnel, marketing and contracting decisions - matters that some board members believe would usurp the board's authority altogether.

In addition, a secret study done for the governor's former chief of staff, warning about the ever-competitive national convention market, suddenly found its way to reporters last week - though it was completed in March.

Both actions, coming a month after dozens of local officials gathered to watch a wrecking ball tear into a building on the expansion site, have created a quiet political fury about what Rendell really wants.

Knowing what hangs in the balance - the $700 million expansion itself - board members, tourism officials and even Rendell's advisers busied themselves doing damage control Friday.

"We respect the autonomy of the Convention Center and its board," state Budget Secretary Michael Masch said. "Nobody is dictating anything to anybody."

Convention Center Authority board chairman Buck Riley said, "I'm totally comfortable that the center is not going to be a drain on the taxpayers of the city or state."

As the feud spills over into the public sphere, it serves as a reminder that politics at the 14-year-old center remain as big as the building itself.

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) said he was "very disappointed" to learn that while the General Assembly was debating the expansion funding, Rendell had withheld a study that painted a more pessimistic picture than city, state or convention officials had previously offered of the positive economic effect of expansion.

The study, done by the Economic Development Research Group of Boston, noted that attendance at conventions and trade shows nationwide suffered a big drop in 2000 and 2001 and hasn't fully recovered. Yet, it said, many cities, like Philadelphia, are expanding or constructing new buildings.

Those findings dovetail with the opinions of Heywood Sanders, a public-policy professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the best-known critic of building new centers or enlarging existing ones.

"The meeting planner or event organizer who considers Philadelphia has an array of choices," he said. "There's a lot more space coming on the market."

In response, Tom Muldoon, president of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he had faith in the conclusions of three other studies, done by the bureau in the last four years, that also assessed the economic impact of a larger center.

"Three separate companies with tremendous experience in this area, the public arena, have looked at it," he said. "This has been massaged and dissected and inspected and pulled apart. We all feel that these numbers are as good as you're going to get."

Based on those studies, Muldoon expects trade show and convention attendance will roughly double, to about 400,000 a year, by 2014.

Despite the contradictory findings, "too much political blood has been put on the ground to try to stop the project," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) of the massive expansion. Evans helped secure dollars to build the existing center.

"But is he [Rendell] probably displeased about some things?" Evans said. "I would agree with that statement."

The governor's biggest, and most consistent, beef is about the 2003 hiring of Albert Mezzaroba as the center's chief executive officer, and the appointment of Michael Nutter as board chairman.

Mezzaroba, a lawyer and former City Council political aide who is close with State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), is a Democrat whose backers included Republican board members. Nutter at the time was nominated for the position by Sam Katz, then the GOP candidate for mayor running to unseat Mayor Street.

Rendell time and again called for their ousters, particularly Mezzaroba's, saying they didn't have professional management backgrounds. At least three times, he tried to install someone of his own choosing, vowing repeatedly to block state money for the expansion.

Nutter, now the presumptive mayor, resigned as chairman last spring. Problem gone. Mezzaroba, however, remains in his job - and some wonder if his continued employment is the reason for Rendell's latest actions.

In an Aug. 27 draft lease agreement between the state and the center, obtained by The Inquirer, there is a provision prohibiting the board from hiring an executive director "without the prior written consent of the Commonwealth." A second provision says the state may "in its sole discretion" require the center to fire the executive director.

Asked about the provisions, Masch said they were in fact intended for the center's chief executive. But he emphasized that the document was a "first draft" and that the governor's office was awaiting suggested revisions from the board.

"Our draft is being characterized as if it's some nonnegotiable demand when it is very far from that," he said.

At the same time, Masch defended the state's push for a stepped-up role regarding the center's everyday activities.

The city has been legally responsible for covering all of the center's operating losses. That obligation will, as part of the $700 million funding deal, soon shift to the state. And the obligation will presumably be much larger, since after expansion the center will double in size.

"For this reason, the Governor believes that it is appropriate for the Commonwealth to have at least the same and possibly even greater rights" than the city had, Masch told the board in a letter Thursday.

In an interview, Masch also noted that while the state is funding the entire expansion, state officials appoint just six of the 15 members on the center's board - two by the governor, and two each by Democratic and Republican state legislators. Four others are named by city officials. Philadelphia's four suburban counties, which pay nothing toward the center's costs, are entitled to one appointment each. A 15th member is appointed chair by the others.

"So the state," Masch said, "is on the hook."

"If there is a problem with the board's composition, then there should be an amendment," Pileggi, the majority leader, said. But if Rendell's goal now is to "do an end-run around the statutory framework," he said, "that would be outrageous."


Contact staff writer Marcia Gelbart at 215-854-2338 or mgelbart@phillynews.com.

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