November 4, 1995 in Nation/World

Ag Center No Longer Has Field To Itself More Farm Groups Choosing To Meet In Tri-Cities

Grayden Jones Staff writer
 

When Gov. Booth Gardner opened the splashy $9.8 million Ag Trade Center in 1989, he proclaimed Spokane the window to the world of agriculture.

So how come so many agricultural meetings are going to Pasco?

In a shift from the past, farm and agribusiness groups increasingly are gathering in the Tri-Cities, Yakima and other points along the Columbia River Basin.

While the shift barely dents Spokane’s booming convention business, it may signal that the city is losing its prominence as the center of Inland Northwest agriculture.

Location, politics and timing have something to do with the shift.

So does an aggressive trio of farm wives who have been hired to keep meeting rooms full in Richland, Kennewick and Pasco.

“Our emphasis is agriculture,” says Kris Watkins, executive director of the TriCities Convention and Visitor Bureau and one of three sales representatives married to farmers. “We see that as an excellent market to go after.”

The biggest loser, it seems, is Spokane.

Farm and agribusiness conventions and events in Spokane have dropped from 16, with 16,400 participants, in 1989 to seven events, with 9,000 participants, in 1995, according to records kept by the Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau and Ag Trade Center.

Special events such as the International Wine Festival haven’t been held since funding for a special events coordinator dried up four years ago.

One of the state’s biggest international trade shows - the Agricultural Showcase - chose the Yakima Valley SunDome three years ago after Spokane showed little interest in hosting the event. The showcase each summer draws more than 2,000 people and exhibitors from 17 countries.

However, the hottest spot for agrelated conventions is the Tri-Cities. The visitor and convention bureau lists 18 ag-related conventions for 1995.

Comparable figures for 1989 were unavailable, but director Watkins said ag convention business has grown dramatically.

Cattle feeders, wheat growers, and vegetable associations are some of the groups meeting this year in the Tri-Cities.

Spokane convention and hotel business isn’t suffering much because of the change. Events such as the Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum continue to draw huge crowds, while fraternal organizations, religious groups, educators and others are exhausting Spokane’s meeting space, said CVB spokeswoman Martha Lou Wheatley.

“We’re hitting the point where we’re maxed out,” said Wheatley, whose organization will sell $65 million in future convention business this year. “We could book larger groups, but we don’t have room.”

Spokane Ag Bureau manager Dennis Fiess said the city is still the hub of Inland Northwest agriculture, but its role has changed from traditional farming and food processing to agricultural finance, distribution and exports. He said he expects Spokane to draw larger meetings in the future with the addition of the Veterans Memorial Arena and local hotels.

“There are conventions that are prime targets for the Tri-Cities that Spokane isn’t interested in,” he said, “and there are ones in Spokane that Seattle isn’t interested in.”

Meeting planners said the Tri-Cities and Yakima are attractive because they have greater diversity of crops and concentration of food processors. More than 100 different commodities are grown in the Columbia Basin, which has drawn the nation’s largest suppliers of packed fruit and meat, frozen french fries and vegetables.

“We like to focus on a broader group of commodities than just grains,” said Washington State University economist Tom Schotzko, who will moderate the 1996 Agricultural Outlook Conference in Pasco later this month. “After all, how many potatoes are grown in Whitman and Spokane counties?”

At least one group not meeting in Spokane this year said it will be back. The 3,000-member Washington Association of Wheat Growers will return in 1996 after holding its first annual convention in six years outside the city. The organization will gather in the Tri-Cities next month because its current president is a Benton County farmer.

Watkins said Tri-Cities hotels want her to recruit ag conventions because they tend to be held in the winter when guests are difficult to find.

To boost its agricultural convention trade, the Tri-Cities this year opened the Trade Recreation and Agriculture Center, a convention hall and rodeo arena that holds 4,000 people.

It also has increased its sales staff at the bureau with people familiar with agriculture.

“This business is extremely competitive,” said Watkins, who is married to an asparagus farmer. “But we’ve got pretty good connections.”

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: REAPING THE WEALTH Upcoming agricultural conventions/events, with estimated attendance:

Spokane Far West Fertilizer Association annual meeting, Dec. 11-14. 1,300. Western Farm Service annual meeting, Dec. 11-13. 170. Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum, Jan. 16-18. 6,000.

Tri-Cities Washington State Crop Improvement Association/Washington and North Idaho Seed Association, Nov. 13-15. 250. WSU’s 1996 Agricultural Outlook Conference, Nov. 21. 125. Washington Association of Wheat Growers annual meeting, Dec. 4-6. 250. Pacific Northwest Vegetable Association annual convention, Dec. 7-8. 300. Washington Cattle Feeders Association annual meeting, Dec. 15-16. 250. Mid-Columbia Farm Forum and Ag Show, Jan. 9-10. 4,000.

SOURCE: Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, Ag Trade Center and Tri-Cities Convention & Visitor Bureau.

This sidebar appeared with the story: REAPING THE WEALTH Upcoming agricultural conventions/events, with estimated attendance:

Spokane Far West Fertilizer Association annual meeting, Dec. 11-14. 1,300. Western Farm Service annual meeting, Dec. 11-13. 170. Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum, Jan. 16-18. 6,000.

Tri-Cities Washington State Crop Improvement Association/Washington and North Idaho Seed Association, Nov. 13-15. 250. WSU’s 1996 Agricultural Outlook Conference, Nov. 21. 125. Washington Association of Wheat Growers annual meeting, Dec. 4-6. 250. Pacific Northwest Vegetable Association annual convention, Dec. 7-8. 300. Washington Cattle Feeders Association annual meeting, Dec. 15-16. 250. Mid-Columbia Farm Forum and Ag Show, Jan. 9-10. 4,000.

SOURCE: Spokane Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau, Ag Trade Center and Tri-Cities Convention & Visitor Bureau.


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