Texas could lose at least $407 million from just four cities in convention business if bathroom bill passes
Joshua Fechter | San Antonio Express-News | March 20, 2017 2:42pm
March 17--The state's biggest cities stand to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in convention spending if Texas lawmakers pass the so-called bathroom bill and conventions make good on threats to take their business elsewhere.
So far, dozens of groups that have planned or are looking at the state for future meetings have threatened to pass over Texas should the bill become law, according to tourism officials in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston -- the state's four largest cities. Estimates on the bill's total economic impact on the state vary. But estimated losses for just those four cities on convention business come to a combined $407 million if those meetings cancel over the next few years, the tourism officials told the San Antonio Express-News.
And that could be the tip of the iceberg; tourism officials say more groups could put the state on notice. Conventions book years in advance so the full effect may not be immediately apparent.
"Once the floodgates open, I think a lot of groups will start to cancel," said Phillip Jones, CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Conventions may also forgo Texas cities even if the bill doesn't pass if the state is viewed as discriminatory, officials said. That could produce a sizable dent in the state's $129-billion-a-year tourism industry, which relies in part on conventions to attract travelers to the Lone Star State.
"We're a very diverse, very welcoming city," said Casandra Matej, executive director of Visit San Antonio, the former city Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And, all of the sudden there's a perception, no matter what side of the aisle or issue you sit, that this is a discriminatory type of legislation. And, that's going to ultimately hurt us."
Lawmakers in Austin have shrugged off warnings by business groups that Texas -- like North Carolina, where legislators enacted that state's own bathroom bill last year -- would see sizable economic fallout should the state pass Senate Bill 6, which would prevent transgender Texans from using the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity in government buildings. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told reporters last month, "There is no evidence whatsoever that the passage of Senate Bill 6 will have any economic impact in Texas."
State senators passed the bill by a 21-10 vote Wednesday, tossing the controversial legislation to the state House of Representatives where it's expected to encounter more resistance. In the process, senators voted down an amendment that would mandate the state keep track of economic losses spurred by the proposed law.
Some estimates peg North Carolina's total cost at $500 million so far and at least 1,400 jobs. Several businesses and groups scaled back operations in North Carolina and canceled major events after then-Gov. Pat McCrory signed House Bill 2 into law. The NBA pulled its All-Star Game from Charlotte in July, and the Atlantic Coast Conference withdrew its college football championship and woman's college basketball tournament from the state.
The NCAA -- slated to hold its 2018 Final Four championship in San Antonio -- relocated seven championship games scheduled this year from North Carolina to other states. Last April, the organization's governing board adopted standards requiring host cities to "demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination."
Dallas stands to lose the most with $157 million in potential convention losses, Jones said. About two dozen organizations have written the tourism bureau expressing concern about the bill. Four groups -- the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, American Thoracic Society, American Society of Association Executives and American Public Transportation Association -- said they would pull their events from Dallas should the bill pass.
Dallas is also entering the bidding process for future Final Four tournaments, All-Star Games and Super Bowls, Jones said. But, the NCAA, NBA and NFL have all publicly voiced concern about Senate Bill 6 and could look elsewhere.
"That means we will have missed a wonderful opportunity to bring a major sporting event to Dallas and the state of Texas if this legislation were to pass," Jones said. "They will not bring their events to a state that is seen as sanctioning and condoning discrimination."
Estimates from the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau peg the economic fallout from lost conventions at $100 million from 14 groups that have expressed serious concern about the legislation, the bureau's president Mike Waterman told the state Senate State Affairs Committee during a March 7 hearing.
The bill's backers often cite the city's vote on the HERO ordinance in 2015, seen as a prelude to the current fight over bathroom access for transgender Texans. Then, Houston voters rejected a move to add gender identity and sexual orientation to the city's nondiscrimination ordinance. Patrick and the bill's author -- state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham -- point out that the NFL didn't pull the Super Bowl from Houston after the vote.
Waterman said the bureau spent "hours" handling calls from a dozen convention groups concerned about the vote but ultimately didn't lose any business, he said at the hearing. Advocates for transgender rights point out that the NFL awarded Super Bowl LI to Houston in May 2013, two years before the vote.
While Houston's proposal didn't pass, "it was a proactive approach to protect those rights," Waterman testified. It wasn't an attempt to curtail rights as Senate bill 6 is viewed. "The perception outside, from a meeting planning perspective, is this is a perceived discriminatory bill and it's a different animal," he said.
Docker Inc., American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, Society for Personality and Social Psychology and Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research have threatened to cancel planned events or pass over Austin for future meetings, according to the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, generating $110 million in potential local economic losses.
Two organizations have told Visit San Antonio they will no longer consider the Alamo City to host future conventions, according to Visit San Antonio. Nine other organizations have said the passage of Senate Bill 6 would affect their decision to return to San Antonio, according to Visit San Antonio.
The NAACP, American Library Association, Public Responsibility in Health and Medicine and American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages each wrote letters to state senators expressing reservations about the bill.
"The reality is there are no cases to support that there's an issue in the bathroom," Matej said.