- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

PHILADELPHIA (AP) It takes three labor unions to put down a tablecloth at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. By David Karcher's standards, that is two unions too many.
Mr. Karcher, director of the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, which held its annual meeting at the convention center in June, canceled plans to return to Philadelphia in 2008 and 2011 after running into sky-high labor costs.
"We were totally blindsided with regard to how the unions operate," Mr. Karcher said. "I'm not the only meeting planner or association executive who feels this way about Philadelphia."
Over the past several months, at least 14 large groups reportedly have canceled plans to meet in the city, and the number of conventions slated for this year is down considerably from 2002.
That means millions of dollars of lost revenue for the restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions that count on the decade-old convention center for their survival.
Inefficient labor practices among the six unions that regularly work there is one of the main complaints about the convention center. The facility also has been functioning for months without a chief executive officer or a chief operating officer.
The problems threaten the city's hospitality industry, as well as a proposed $464 million center expansion that backers say would help Philadelphia attract bigger conventions.
"It is on everybody's radar screen that Philadelphia has to get its labor taken care of to continue to play," said Jack Ferguson, vice president of convention sales at the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In the early 1990s, lawmakers bet hundreds of millions of tax dollars on the proposition that the convention center would drive the revitalization of downtown Philadelphia.
To an extent, that was what happened. The $522 million center, which opened in 1993, was the primary catalyst for dozens of Center City hotels and restaurants. By 2014, out-of-town conventioneers are projected to have spent $3 billion in the city.
The convention center is "the wheel that turns the hospitality industry" in Philadelphia, said Danielle Cohn of the convention and visitors bureau.
But the spokes are coming off. Last year, the center hosted a record 27 major conventions. That number has dropped to 18 this year, and only 12 conventions have been confirmed for next year and in 2005.
Jurisdictional disputes over who does what work at the center are largely to blame, said David Crawford, a University of Pennsylvania management professor and co-author of a study on the convention center.
While most convention centers have two or three unions operating, Philadelphia's has six, and they all have "legitimate historical claims to the work," Mr. Crawford said.
Take exhibitors' booths, a staple of conventions and trade shows. In Philadelphia, two unions must be hired to put together the booths. The laborers union assembles the pipe frames, and then the carpenters union takes apart the frames to add the drapes.
Union leaders say weak management is to blame, and at least one says a private company should be brought in to run the place.
"In the last couple of years, there was nobody really guarding the store," said John Dougherty, business manager of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
"There weren't enough rules for us."

Labor problems have eased somewhat in the past year. Mr. Ferguson, of the convention and visitors bureau, said exhibitors have filed no complaints over the past six months.

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