Convention center expansion hinges on tax vote
Five years after opening a new convention center, the Spokane Public Facilities District is readying plans to ask voters for a $65 million expansion.
The proposal would add more than 90,000 square feet to the Spokane Convention Center, including meeting space that was cut from the 2006 expansion because of budget cuts.
“A lot of the need is just finishing what we started,” said district board member Larry Soehren. “It also gives us a way to enhance the whole river experience.”
The cost would be paid for by extending by 10 years the district’s existing sales and hotel taxes that are currently set to expire in about 2033, said district Executive Director Kevin Twohig. It also would use a portion of state sales taxes collected in Spokane, which also are helping to pay for the 2006 addition.
Voters would have to sign off on the extension of the sales and hotel taxes, and some leaders worry that a convention center tax proposal could make approval of other tax measures less likely. In the next year or two Spokane voters could be asked to help maintain police, library and fire services, build a new jail, pay for Spokane Public Schools operations and renovate a building for a regional animal control shelter.
“I just think that the time is wrong,” said Spokane Mayor Mary Verner. “I wouldn’t say it would be too early if the economy were booming, but with all the other demands in the queue for the voters’ attention, I believe the PFD will need to wait.”
City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said recent failure of a property tax for the Mead School District indicates that early next year might be too soon to ask voters for a convention center expansion.
Asked what she thought of pursuing a convention center addition in the next year, McLaughlin said: “Good luck.”
District officials say moving forward next year would keep the district on a planned 10-year cycle for improvements. But they say they are willing to move a vote if other leaders believe the timing is bad.
“We haven’t put a stake in the ground,” Soehren said. “We still have to work with what the rest of the community has on their agenda.”
The addition would be connected to the new convention center on the north side along the Spokane River, where C.I. Shenanigan’s is located. The district bought Shenanigan’s and the 1.2 acres it sits on in 2009 for $4.5 million. The restaurant would be torn down as part of the project.
City Councilman Steve Corker said he has “mixed feelings” about pursuing an expanded convention center. Spokane is “on the cusp” of being able to attract larger conventions, he said, but that ability is hindered by air travel to the city.
“If we could get more air connections that would make a strong argument,” Corker said.
Twohig said besides attracting larger conventions, the addition would allow the district to book more events at the same time.
After the 2002 vote, meeting rooms intended near the new exhibit space were cut from the project because of a spike in materials and construction costs. The lack of meeting space next to the main exhibit hall has drawn complaints from convention center users.
Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Association, said the group’s 2007 annual convention used meeting rooms at the DoubleTree Hotel and the convention center’s new exhibit hall for the association’s trade show. The distance between the two areas proved to be a major inconvenience and held attendance down at the trade show, she said.
“We had exhibitors that told us in 2007 that if you don’t fix this, we’re not coming back to Spokane,” Skaer said.
The association held its convention again in Spokane last year, with all events in the old convention center, a plan that worked well for the group. But the space wasn’t big enough to hold all the exhibitors who requested booths for the trade show, she said.
Skaer said she supports an expansion as long as it includes enough meeting space adjacent to the main exhibit hall.
Twohig said the proposal includes 25,000 square feet of meeting space. The convention center currently has 35,000 square feet of meeting space in the old convention center.
Gary Pollard, chairman of the Riverside Neighborhood Council, said he supports the addition. The Riverside neighborhood includes downtown Spokane.
“It will be a big economic development tool for our neighborhood and our city,” Pollard said.