It has become popular — especially among conservative voices — to say that government doesn’t create jobs and economic growth; that only the private sector can do that. Government, the voices say, needs to get out of the way.
But this week, more than 10,000 members of the American Legion will be in the Twin Cities, filling up hotels and restaurants throughout downtown Minneapolis. Before they leave, the delegates to the convention are expected to spend from $17 million to $22 million in the region.
Much of the money will end up in state coffers directly through sales taxes and indirectly by income taxes paid by people whose jobs depend on tourism dollars. According to Explore Minnesota, there are 70,000 people in Hennepin County alone whose jobs revolve around travel and tourism.
The point: The Legion delegates — and the thousands of delegates from dozens of other large conventions — wouldn’t be here without the Minneapolis Convention Center.
The convention center is a product of government. It’s owned by the city. It’s built — and maintained — through a variety of hotel, restaurant and entertainment taxes. Authority for levying those taxes came from the 1986 Legislature.
Government doesn’t create jobs? The convention center would seem to be a small example of a different reality.
Convention center ‘invaluable asset’
“This facility is an invaluable asset,” said Melvin Tennant, president and CEO of Meet Minneapolis, the organization that works to attract conventions and trade meetings to the city.
The structure, which opened in 1989, is not self-sustaining. Tax collections from hotel, liquor and restaurant taxes amount to about $48 million a year. $18 million of that is used to subsidize operations of the building, and the rest goes to pay off debt and keep the center as current as possible.
But by continuing to invest, Tennant said, “the building remains ahead of the [national] competition.”
“It’s designed to be a loss leader,” said Tennant. “There’s an effort to minimize the losses. But in every way, it’s been a great public investment.”
In 2010, Tennant said, the Convention Center created $900 million in spending.
This week’s event is considered among the biggest and best conventions a region can attract. The city already has contracted with the American Legion for the organization’s 2018 convention, which will be an even bigger deal because it will mark the 100th anniversary of the Legion.
Aside on the Legion: This is no longer our fathers’ organization. The current national commander, Alaskan Jimmie Foster, will be succeeded next month by a New Yorker, Fang Wong, who will become the first Asian-American to head the organization.
“I assure you that pretty soon, we’ll have our first female national commander and our first African-American commander,” said Foster.
Although the old slogan — “For God and country” — remains, the issues it deals with are contemporary.
A main focus of this convention, for example, is a jobs fair. For reasons Foster can’t comprehend, the unemployment rate among military vets is higher than the national average. Part of the problem, Foster said, is that vets often don’t get credit by prospective employers for training and time spent on military jobs.
Women’s health care is another of the contemporary issues.
“We took a survey [among female vets],” said Foster, “and one of the things that became clear is that they would like to see more female health care providers [in Veterans Administration hospitals].”
Legion now broader-based
The national increase in flag-waving patriotism that followed 9-11 has made the Legion — and its causes — a broader-based organization than it was in the 1960s and ’70s.
Vets from the current wars are “more likely to join” the Legion than vets of the Vietnam era were, according to Foster.
He said the organization attempts to be less blatantly political than it was in the 1960s, when the Legion often appeared to be attempting to be the counter-balance to the anti-war movements.
Yes, Rep. Michele Bachmann is among those speaking at the convention. But so is Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
“The world’s too big and too complex for us to be getting wrapped up in politics,” said Foster. “We want to take care of our issues. We want to progress. We don’t want to get wrapped up in some of these other things.”
Minneapolis, the commander said, is an ideal place for his organization to meet. The central location encourages a high turnout, the city offers a “great” downtown, and there are a variety of hotels.
And, of course, without the convention center, there would be no Legion convention here. Nor would there have been 6,000 people attending the 25th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Society. Nor would there have been 10,000 people showing up for the Cheer and Dance Championships.
With the economic times, these have been down times for conventions and trade shows throughout the nation. Last year, the Minneapolis Convention Center attracted 329 events, down substantially from the five-year average of 478.
But this week, things will be humming in Minneapolis. On Sunday, there was a Legion parade down Nicollet Mall. The president comes to town on Tuesday, and downtown streets are filled with men and women in blue caps.
Government doesn’t create jobs?