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Hightower Expo Hall plans may be just more corporate welfare

Part of the collateral damage of the opening of Shreveport’s convention center concerns the fate of the city’s Exposition Hall. The facility has run well short of capacity or breakeven in supporting itself financially for some time. Until the opening of the Convention Center, whether it contributed financially didn’t matter so much because the city needed a location to stage certain events of its own.

But now the city apparently has signaled that it plans to shift those kinds of activities to the Center and has declared the Hall superfluous, by trying to shop it around leased out for purposes of economic development. Not only does this reflect curiously on the city’s financial priorities, but its intended use for economic development itself poses serious questions.

Mayor Keith Hightower wants to lease the Hall for a rock-bottom price for 15 years for two purposes. First, it costs the city about $400,000 annually to maintain the property and is used but around 25 percent of the time according to city officials. By having a private concern pick up the maintenance tab, the city saves hundreds of thousands of dollars. Second, he wants to rent it out for use it as a movie production stage to complement the heightened interest in Shreveport as a film location, and perhaps to extend this interest to keep productions displaced from shooting in New Orleans to stick around here or to come back.

(There’s an interesting discrepancy here, because Shreveport’s 2005 budget claimed the Hall was used 58 percent of the time in 2004. This may be due to the fact that a number of users have their rental fees waived, and that may have been what was meant by the 25 percent figure, paying users. It’s hard to believe usage plunged that much in 2005. In any event, rental fees for all city structures, not just the Hall, accounted for only around $300,000 annually the past few years. Also, the 2005 budget notes a number of capital improvements needed for the Hall, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars more in future expenditures.)

The financial consideration is a bit shortsighted. It seems curious that an administration that plans to blow $150 million on a dubious convention center and exceptionally dubious publicly-owned hotel, and tens of millions more on a sludge conversion contract that ended up financially benefiting Hightower allies, can be so concerned about a less than $400,000 or so yearly drain on the city’s coffers (unless it’s to cover losses stemming from the hotel that taxpayers will have to pick up).

Those users of the Hall who pay also have complained, since many do not have gatherings of the size to make renting the Center cost effective. Some have threatened for their meetings to head over to Bossier City which has taken a less penny-wise, pound-foolish approach by retaining its Civic Center even as its CenturyTel Center loses money.

Simultaneously, the idea to lease out the Hall for stage purposes also seems rather half-baked. Primarily, as a local industry insider recently pointed out, that kind of work typically is not done on location except for smaller, independent makers. Still, the idea might have merit if there were more of an infrastructure to entice major studios to haul non-local actors to Shreveport to do the inside work, as long as they are there for location work.

In fact, that may be on the horizon. Bossier Parish Community College is implementing a program to train workers for the film industry. Certainly this would increase chances of more productions coming this way that want the use of stage facilities (provided the state continues its corporate welfare for the film industry, which actually drains the state treasury more than it indirectly brings in). Shreveport even could offer, as part of the lease, to allow BPCC to use this envisioned one for its educational purposes.

However, at best this constitutes only a short-term solution. BPCC will not want to spread inefficiently its resources geographically and no doubt should move to have its own production facilities built as quickly as it can. And then the contemplated Shreveport complex would have state-subsidized competition that likely would make it a losing proposition that no lessee concerned about making a profit along these lines would want to touch and the city is back to square one.

Balancing the desires of smaller organizations that use the Hall against a doubtful plan which, if anything, would turn into Shreveport’s own version of corporate welfare (with some interest hitting the jackpot with essentially a free building), Hightower needs to scrap this idea.

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