The National Rifle Association's national tent revival is coming to Dallas in May. Whether the city and its residents like it or not, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and company have a valid contract, good for a free takeover of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on Cinco de Mayo weekend.
The Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, known colloquially as Visit Dallas, believed that booking the NRA would be such a boon to the city that it agreed to cover $387,778 of the convention center's $410,618 rent when it wooed the organization in 2012. The city of Dallas is kicking in the remaining $22,840 as an incentive.
In the uproar that followed the murders of 15 high school kids in the country's latest mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, Visit Dallas had a ready set of talking points for those who wondered why Dallas, home to two of the country's most notorious examples of gun violence — the Kennedy assassination and the murder of five police officers in 2016 — was hosting the convention. The convention, it argued, was too valuable not to book, promising the city 50,000 hotel room stays from an estimated minimum of 20,000 visitors. The direct cash impact of those stays, according to Visit Dallas, is going to be $24 million, with an additional $18 million spent in the city when all is said and done, leaving a $42 million economic mark on the city.
Which would be fine, not really significant, but fine. The Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth Metropolitan Statistical Area had a gross domestic product of about $512 billion in 2016, according to the Census Bureau. Stirring in another $42 million adds about 1/1,000 of 1 percent to the region's economy, but at least it's something. The thing is, however, there's no proving Visit Dallas' numbers. Held up to even the slightest scrutiny, they begin to waver, big time.
Let's start with total room nights. In a set of talking points given to city employees — check out the statement Dallas City Council member Jennifer Gates gave D Magazine — and passed on to the media in February, Visit Dallas provided the 50,000 figure. It's worth pointing out that in two internal spreadsheets obtained by the Observer, Visit Dallas suggests a much smaller number. According to both a booking list from 2015 and an economic impact data chart from 2016, Visit Dallas expected 20,035 total hotel nights from NRA conventioneers, with a peak night of 5,500 stays. Both sheets list the same economic impact figures — $24 million direct and $42 million total — that are being bandied about.
Late Monday, Frank Librio, Visit Dallas' chief marketing officer, said Visit Dallas inverted the numbers when it passed on the information, meaning the 20,035 total room nights number is correct.
If out-of-town NRA attendees only book about 20,000 hotel rooms, Visit Dallas' economic impact figures, though modest, are implausible, according to Victor Matheson, a Holy Cross University professor who's worked extensively to determine the economic impacts of major events on the cities that host them.
"At 20,000 hotel stays, you're talking about $1,200 per hotel room night in spending. That's probably high," Matheson says, "and it's especially high if this isn't a peak event. It's very unlikely that, because the NRA is in town, that hotels are going to raise their rates to three or four times what they would normally be, like the Super Bowl. Even if you're talking about the peak 5,500 room night, that's pretty small when you're talking about the whole Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex."
If the 50,000 hotel rooms nights number had been accurate, it would have made Visit Dallas' estimates — which come from Destinations International's proprietary Event Impact Calculator, according to Librio — closer to reality. The direct spend number would be $480 per hotel night, which isn't unreasonable in a nice hotel if you count room service and other incidentals. But it's hard to imagine that the city will net anywhere close to that many hotel nights from the convention.
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A new paper from economics professors Frank Stephenson and Craig Depken, set to be published in the journal Economic Inquiry later this year, examines the effects several big events in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area had on the region's hotel industry.
One of the events Stephenson and Depken looked at was the 2010 NRA National Convention in Charlotte. During the three nights of the convention, Stephenson says, the Charlotte metro area saw a total increase in hotel room rentals of 7,050. Add in the night before the convention, which saw 4,950 more room rentals than average, and Charlotte saw about 12,000 extra hotel rooms occupied during the convention, which was attended by 72,128 people. The net gain in hotel spending over the four nights, according to Stephenson and Depken, was $1,377,000.
However you slice it, it's unlikely that the convention is putting any more into the city's coffers than whatever could have been booked in its place, Matheson says. The NRA might be a big name for Visit Dallas, but booking the convention is just part of a cycle that ropes in cities that build convention centers with public funds.
"It's not just that you're offering free rent. You've already offered fairly large taxpayer subsidies to build the convention center," Matheson says. "It's one of those things that's really a bait-and-switch. You say, 'If we build it, we'll be able to fill it all the time, and all this rental money will come back to us.' So you say, 'Look this is good spending of our public funds.' Then, if you turn around and say, 'The only way we're going to fill this thing is by offering discounts or free use of the facility, but all the hotel rooms we rent will make up for it' — remember, you were supposed to use the rent to pay for building it in the first place. ... It can pretty quickly turn into no one paying any money anywhere because someone down the road is making money. Eventually, you run out of people in this musical chairs."