Grapevine edited by Steve Volk
by Jonathan Valania / Illustrations by Jay Bevenour
So you've heard there's some kind of trouble over at the Convention Center. Union price gouging, fistfights, cursing, political power grabs, lawsuits heading to the state Supreme Court. Sounds kinda exciting, doesn't it? Kinda like a pirate ship. Like something you should be keeping up on. Because, after all, convention business is one of the primary engines pulling the city's train, providing 44,000 jobs and pumping $2.6 billion into the local economy. But every time you try to read yet another of the bazillion Convention Center articles pumped out by our two well-meaning dailies, your eyes glaze over, right? Same here. And that's why we read through every one of those bazillion articles: so you don't have to. What follows is PW's Convention Center Guide for Dummies. Please try to pay attention and look up any of the big words you don't understand.
In 1993 the $523 million Pennsylvania Convention Center opens. A beautiful, gigantic facility is born with just one flaw: It might not be gigantic enough. In the convention business, size does indeed matter, and within 10 years it will be determined that it will cost another $464 million to make it gigantic enough. Actually, there's one other critical flaw: the Byzantine, Soviet-era, how-many-Teamsters-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb labor model from the old Civic Center. Six different labor shops--each seemingly playing by its own hard-ass rules and ballooning price structures--rule the roost in the new Convention Center, which on a bad day resembles a cockfight. Under this model, it's nearly impossible for an exhibitor is to put up a booth larger than 100 square feet without using union labor. And doing it yourself is permitted only if you don't use any tools.
In 1994 the unions and Convention Center management iron out labor guidelines to make the facility more user-friendly. Overtime pay is reduced from double-time to time-and-a-half, and the minimum labor call is reduced--meaning if an exhibitor has only one hour of work, he pays for just four hours of work instead of the once- mandatory eight. The unions hail these changes as "major concessions." The Convention Center also starts "sensitivity training" to remind workers not to swear so much or wear cutoff T-shirts emblazoned with obscenities ... and for God's sake, man, cover up that butt crack!
Despite the f-word being replaced with the more benign "friggin'" and an all-around pulling up of pants, things continue to go from bad to worse. By 1998 Philadelphia earns the distinction of having the second-highest convention center labor costs in the country, just behind San Francisco. If you've ever spent a few days in Frisco's wallet-Hoovering economy, you know what an impressive accomplishment this is. Labor pricing and inefficiency become major issues in Philly three years later when the East Coast Volleyball Association, a nonprofit organization, documents that it took six union laborers and a couple plumbers two hours to set up a volleyball court. The association notes that the job takes eight 14-year-old girls one hour in any other facility. It costs the volleyball group $135,000 to hold an event in Philadelphia that usually averages $15,000 in other cities. They won't be coming back.
In addition to the profanity and price gouging, fistfighting becomes another unwelcome add-on cost of union labor services. In 1998 Steven "the Gorilla" Mondevergine, leader of the Philadelphia chapter of the Pagans motorcycle club and a member of the carpenters' union, makes headlines when he gets into fisticuffs with the cops inside the Center. In August 2000 someone shoots the Gorilla six times in the face and body. None of the girls' volleyball players are considered suspects. In November 2002 a 6-foot-7 carpenter named James "Big Jack" Giovinetti walks up to Ed Coryell Jr., the head carpenters' union official at the Convention Center. He shouts, "Where's my fucking money?" then punches Coryell square in the face. Giovinetti is led from the Convention Center in handcuffs.
And then there's the leadership--which at the Convention Center is like that scene in Apocalypse Now where Martin Sheen jumps into a bullet-riddled foxhole and asks a soldier who's in charge. And the soldier shoots back with, "Ain't you?" In the summer of 2002 Robert Williams, the former Convention Center CEO, somehow gets by on $1,500 a day. When belt-tightening time comes around soon after, he agrees to work for a paltry $20,000 a month, which isn't so bad considering he's living in a $3,800-a-month apartment at the Phoenix on the taxpayer's dime. Williams' comped expenses were never actually approved by the Convention Center board. Instead they were rubberstamped by Williams' buddy, Bernard Watson, former chairman of the Convention Center board. Watson never bothered to actually live here in Philadelphia when he chaired the board, so taxpayers were socked with the $10,161 it cost to fly him back and forth from his home in Sarasota, Fla., on several occasions between April 2001 and December 2002 for board meetings.
Most convention centers shoot for a return booking rate of 50 percent--meaning conventioneers and trade-show representatives had a pleasant experience and want to come back. At the Pennsylvania Convention Center the return rate is now 15 percent. To address all these issues, the Convention Center commissions a $125,000 study by Econsult Corporation. The results, which were released last June, strongly recommend that the Convention Center adopt a single-source labor model--meaning that a union worker would not only set up a table, but he could also put the tablecloth on it instead of having to wait around for a rep from the tablecloth union. Mayor Street likes this idea, and by September 2002 he's convinced five of the six affected unions to agree to it. The lone holdout is the carpenters' union, which feels very strongly that having one union worker put up a table and put the tablecloth on it is taking food out of the mouths of union babies.
Okay, we're in the home stretch here, but pay attention, because this is where it gets fast and weird. With negotiations to get the carpenters' union to sign the new labor agreement in a free fall, and Ed Rendell, the newly elected Democratic governor just months away from taking power, state House Republican Majority Leader John Perzel stages a middle-of-the-night power grab, pushing through a bill on Thanksgiving Eve 2002 that puts the Convention Center under state control. This is widely seen as a political move to embarrass Mayor Street in an election year. Others say Street got what he had coming for playing patty-cake with the carpenters' union when he should have been playing hardball. But then again, how tough could Street be on the carpenters' union after they donated $50,000 to his reelection campaign?
Early last month, the new state-mandated Convention Center board appoints Street foes Michael Nutter and Albert Mezzaroba as chairman and CEO, respectively. Neither has any hospitality industry experience. In a show of support for Street, newly sworn-in Gov. Ed Rendell responds by refusing to allocate any state money to the proposed $464 million Convention Center expansion. Partisan politics aside, Rendell is protecting his legacy. After all, it's the Rendell Miracle that's being squandered over at the Convention Center.