The City of Los Angeles is mulling a $67.4 million handout to the New York–based developer Lightstone to build a 1,000-room hotel complex in the city's downtown.
According to an economic analysis commissioned by the city, Lightstone's project faces a $67.4 million "feasibility gap" were the project to try solely on private capital. Rather than take this as a sign that the project is well, infeasible, the city has decided to make up the difference.
Under the terms of a rough agreement approved by the city council's Economic Development Committee, L.A. would pay Lightstone the money over a 25-year period once construction is completed. In return for this support, Lightstone promises the hotels will achieve and maintain an impressive 3-star rating from AAA and will provide a "Community Benefits Package" that includes hiring locals, paying a living wage, and offering room block agreements for conventions and the 2028 Olympics.
City officials claim the subsidy is needed because there aren't enough hotel options near L.A.'s publicly owned convention center. "The biggest complaint we get from people who want to bring conventions to Los Angeles are the number of hotels within walking distance of the convention center and the variety of price points for rooms," Doane Liu, executive director of the city's Department of Convention and Tourism Development, told the Los Angeles Times.
The city claims that the hotel will actually make money for taxpayers. In 25 years of operation, the complex's three hotels are supposed to generate $494 million in nominal tax revenue, or $160 million in today's dollars. But such promises always accompany big public payouts to hotel developers—and almost always fail to come to fruition.
For an example, look to Phoenix, Arizona. In 2005, the Downtown Phoenix Hotel Corporation—an arm of the Phoenix city government—borrowed $350 million to construct a 1,000-room Sheraton Hotel in the city's downtown. As with the prospective Lightstone deal in Los Angeles, the Sheraton project was supposed to breathe life into Phoenix's convention center by providing much needed hotel rooms to the downtown area. Instead, both convention attendees and hotel occupancy rates plummeted when the Sheraton opened in 2009, and the hotel required $47 million in further subsidies to stay afloat. This year Phoenix agreed to sell the hotel for a $200 million loss.
The City of Los Angeles is protected from a loss on that scale because it will not directly own the Lightstone project and because it isn't offering as big a subsidy for its construction. But that does not make it a wise use of taxpayers' funds.
The fact that private investors are not willing to fully fund the project as currently conceived implies that there are higher-value uses out there for that scarce capital, uses that could yield more benefits to Los Angeles residents than greater foot traffic to the city's convention center. The same can be said for the public money Los Angeles is willing to invest, which could go to much more valuable uses than building more $225-a-night hotel rooms.
The full Los Angeles City Council is set to vote on the financial aid package this Friday.