FOR THE PAST few years, the chart-tracking bookings at the city's huge Pennsylvania Convention Center has looked like a ski slope - with all the lines headed down.
The $780 million expansion, completed in 2011, was supposed to bring more and bigger conventions to the city, in turn meaning more work for the city's 62,000 hospitality-sector employees.
But a decade of labor strife had soured convention organizers on booking the facility. Philadelphia had a national reputation for being a hostile and costly venue. We were on our way to having a large, expensive and empty white elephant on our hands.
The situation changed in a major way in May. The center's board hired a new manager, SMG, of Conshohocken, to run day-to-day operations. It also negotiated a new agreement with four of the center's six unions designed to make life easier for exhibitors, with fewer restrictive work rules and the promise of a new attitude toward customers.
The changes have worked.
Last week, the city's convention and tourism industry celebrated the news that bookings at the center are up; the percentage of conventions returning has risen; they even landed a major convention for the first time: In 2019, the American Heart Association and its 25,000 delegates will convene in Philadelphia.
As Gregory Fox, chairman of the center's board, explained it, the convention bookers are a small and tightly knit group. Bad news travels fast in the business, but then so does good news. The news is that Philadelphia is now a good place to hold an event.
Organizers always liked the facility and their members loved the city; what was widely known as "labor hassles" kept them away.
Why such a big difference in a short time period? As one board member explained: "It's because the bully has left the hall."
It was a reference to Edward Coryell Sr., president of the local Carpenters Union, whose members were a big part of the unionized workforce at the center and also a major source of grief.
The carpenters, along with the Teamsters, were ousted from the center last spring after they staged a one-day walkout amid negotiations over a new agreement.
Coryell, a prominent labor leader with a lot of political pull, overplayed his hand. In August 2013, he had staged another mini-strike during a week when a major convention was due to set up operations at the center. The convention board, which is composed of political appointees, caved and extended its agreement with the unions for six months.
When Coryell pulled the same trick in May - this time there was a convention in the building waiting to be taken down - the center's board got moxie, signed a new agreement with the other four unions and told the two holdouts to take a walk.
Coryell was furious. He said that he was "tricked" by the board over the deadline for signing the contract. He has appealed his union's ouster to an arbitrator. His members have regularly picketed the center when conventions are in town.
The Stagehands Union and the Laborers Union have taken on the tasks once performed by the (much more expensive) carpenters.
Coryell and his members are the losers here, but they brought it upon themselves.
The city is the winner, along with all the hotel, restaurant and other hospitality workers who depend on a thriving center for their jobs.