A costly new music museum is just the latest request from D.C.’s entertainment-industrial complex.

When 31st-century archaeologists sift through the fossils of America’s cities, they won’t have a hard time interpreting the ruins of the late 19th century. The factories built stuff, the railroads transported stuff, and the warehouses held stuff. However, scholars from the distant future might have a bit more difficulty understanding the urban relics of our own age. What could people have ever done with all those aquariums, gift shops, and oversized stadiums?

As it turns out, contemporary observers have a hard time explaining it themselves. During the last decade, pretty much every city in the country has looked for a formula to lure suburbanite pocketbooks back to downtown. Lately, it’s worked out about like this: Civic boosters decide that the city needs a new convention center. Next, they lobby for a publicly financed sports arena or two. If they pull all that off, they push to turn potentially profitable public land into an aquarium, some pop-culture museums with high gift shop potential, and maybe a corporate entertainment complex.

And when they’re all done with that, they look at the numbers and realize it isn’t working.

Always a few years behind the curve, the District has recently bought into the strategy with a convert’s zeal. The MCI Center opened in 1997. An $800 million new convention center is on the way. Despite having no team to fill it, the city wants a $300 million baseball stadium. And now, Regardie’s Power reports that the elite Federal City Council (FCC) has been quietly lobbying Congress to designate the current convention center a taxpayer-subsidized music complex—complete with boutique hotel, music hall, and a “National Museum of American Music.”

The music museum plan is based on the notion that cities—particularly downtowns—can be revived not as places to live, but as entertaining places for tourists to visit. Like Disneyland. Or, more accurately, like Cleveland and Camden, N.J., two other struggling towns trying to lure in tourists with their own versions of the music museum.

Marc Weiss, a former economic development official with the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, who participated in discussions about the museum with the FCC, thinks the music museum could be a home run for downtown, especially if it pays for itself. “One of the most important things we need is to keep people downtown 24 hours a day,” he says.

Never mind, of course, that, unlike Cleveland and Camden, D.C. is already a tourist venue, hosting more than 20 million visitors every year. Competing with the sprawling—and free—Smithsonian complex, a second-tier music museum would be hard pressed to tip the balance in downtown’s favor.

“It’s delusional, but it’s characteristic of every city in the country who pins its hopes on some kind of entertainment thing,” says Ronald Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who studies the economic impact of tourist-related entertainment in cities. Utt points out that urban entertainment schemes have failed to produce much new employment, investment, or population growth for decaying cities from Cleveland to Pittsburgh to Baltimore.

Nonetheless, D.C. officials and chamber-of-commerce types are still promoting the music museum as part of a revitalization strategy whose main difference from that of the famously depressed Camden appears to be that those crafty South Jersey types thought of it first. In addition to an aquarium, Camden already sports a Sony-Blockbuster entertainment center on its waterfront. It’s currently in the process of building a state-financed minor-league baseball park. Around the corner are a possible museum of recorded sound, and—naturally—a conference center. The precedent somehow doesn’t appear in the sales pitches of D.C.’s downtown-booster class.

The blueprint for D.C.’s downtown-Disneyland strategy lies in a 1997 report produced by the Interactive Downtown Task Force, a mayorally appointed group headed up by local mall developer Herbert Miller and charged with coming up with ideas for revitalizing downtown by attracting tourists.

Along with a baseball stadium and the music museum, the task force recommended that the city build an “American Sports Museum” next to the MCI Center, an “interactive FBI Museum and restaurant,” a relocated Children’s Museum paired up with a Toys “R” Us “Kids World” department store, and such attractions as the “American Spy Museum,” the “American Auto Museum,” the “American Culinary Museum,” and the “American Music Dome”—a 16,000-seat virtual-reality theater about two-thirds the size of the MCI Center that would have sat on top of the new convention center.

The report may seem like so much folly, but several of its proposals have been moving forward—most notably the baseball stadium. The music dome got shot down by the Convention Center Authority, which said the dome would eat up too much space. Now, it has been reinvented as a more highbrow, “Kennedy Center East”-type of appendage to the music museum. The museum was modeled after Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and is enhanced by Nancy Sinatra’s promise to donate her father’s memorabilia and archives.

But, as Utt points out, there’s a lesson for the District in Cleveland—which has been praised as a model of urban renewal by everyone from Wizards owner Abe Pollin to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Cleveland sank nearly $100 million in taxpayer money into the Hall of Fame, which opened in 1995 as the centerpiece of the city’s renewal plan. Museum officials promised a million visitors a year. The first year, though, only 867,000 people showed up. By 1998, attendance had fallen to 580,000 annually. Even rock ‘n’ rollers saw little to love about the place. Mojo Nixon parodied the institution with a song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Lame.”

“The rock ‘n’ roll museum is just tanking,” says Utt. “All the while, Cleveland continues to lose population and jobs.”

And Utt notes that the Cleveland museum is failing even without competition. Open one in D.C., and it will face off against the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Natural History—not to mention the Opryland development planned for the Prince George’s County waterfront. The $560 million Opryland Hotel Potomac will feature five acres of retail shops under glass, plus a hotel and conference center complete with Americana-themed atriums and waterfront access.

Boosters say the music museum would only be a small part of the downtown complex, which would feature a Kennedy Center-run concert hall. But it’s not as though downtown D.C. is suffering from a lack of performance space, either. The area already has the Warner Theatre, the National Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre, and the MCI Center. “It’s clear that the District has an immense collection of these things in town already,” says Heywood Sanders, a D.C. native, who studies development from his position as a public policy professor at Trinity University in San Antonio. “How much more do you need?”

In addition, the city had hoped to sell off the current convention center for $200 million in much-needed cash. The new tax-exempt museum would continue to keep the valuable plot of land off the tax rolls. George Washington University Professor of Urban and Regional Planning Dorn McGrath says the museum is just “one more bauble hanging on the tree. If it weren’t so tragic and expensive, it would be funny.” Utt says public investment in museum-entertainment projects offers little payback and generally fail to boost the local employment base. Officials in Camden have already figured that out. After spending $250 million on its new waterfront development, the city saw a paltry net gain of about 150 to 200 jobs—including part-time ones, according to a Washington Post report last year. “We ought not view museums as engines of economic revitalization, because they’re not,” Utt says.

Not only are these projects huge tax drains, says Utt, but “they become liabilities that you keep having to build things to prop up.” Both Sanders and Utt point to D.C.’s new convention center, which the local hotel industry insisted was crucial to reviving downtown and filling hotel rooms. Now, industry folks argue that the city needs the music museum, baseball stadium, and other big-ticket items to support the convention center.

Cleveland is no different. With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the skids, city officials now say they know just what they need to fix the problem: a new convention center. CP