County may add fairgrounds to PFD ballot

THURSDAY, JAN. 12, 2012

Spokane County Commissioners said Wednesday they might want a piece of the action when voters are asked for money to expand the existing Convention Center and add seats to the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.

Officials in charge of the two public facilities will ask voters April 17 to extend a pair of taxes used to pay for Spokane entertainment facilities.

The campaign for the $65 million package is being promoted as “The Staying Competitive, Creating Jobs Project” by the Spokane Public Facilities District, a separate arm of local government that runs the city’s major venues.

As part of the plan, county commissioners are being asked to pledge the county’s property tax authority to back bonds to be sold for the project through the facilities district, which would lower borrowing costs and increase the amount of money that could be raised.

Meanwhile, the county wants to make $2.8 million worth of improvements at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center, and commissioners said that adding improvements at the fairgrounds to the ballot language might be a fair trade for the county agreeing to put property owners on the hook for district bonds.

“I think that’s a reasonable discussion to have with the PFD board,” Commission Chairman Todd Mielke said.

The fairgrounds are a significant part of the mix of entertainment destinations locally, commissioners said.

Under the ballot measure, the facilities district is asking voters to extend a one-tenth-of-a-penny sales tax and a 2 percent hotel room tax to 2043. They are currently set to expire in 2033. The district also would need the Legislature to extend a sales tax rebate used in financing the Convention Center, completed in 2006.

Those taxes are expected to be sufficient to cover the cost of repaying bonds, but the additional security of a contingent loan agreement from the county would provide the high bond rating and favorable terms currently enjoyed by the county.

Under the proposal, the district would add 90,000 square feet to the Convention Center, currently at 100,000 square feet in its main exhibit hall. The expansion would add 25,000 square feet of meeting rooms and 20,000 square feet of space on the center’s north side.

The new meeting rooms would eliminate the walk between the newer convention hall and the older spaces built by the city of Spokane over the years. That distance is a source of displeasure among some who attend conventions.

The project would also provide shoreline and Centennial Trail enhancements at the Convention Center complex.

The Arena would see installation of about 750 new seats on the west end of the upper bowl to meet minimum standards for drawing NCAA basketball tournament competition in the future.

Mick McDowell, chairman of the district board, said the expansion would put Spokane in line to compete for conventions that require at least 100,000 square feet of exhibit space.

“We are responding to what our current users think we need to have,” McDowell said.

An economic assessment showed that the facilities generate $173 million in overall impact on the Spokane economy with 2,300 full-time and part-time jobs.

He said estimates show that the project could bring an additional 800 permanent jobs and 350 to 400 construction jobs.

McDowell said the board would welcome discussions with county commissioners about the fairgrounds projects, including the possibility of incorporating the fairgrounds into district operations.

Commissioners said they also may be willing to give up ownership of the fair and expo center, if it means the fairgrounds would see ongoing improvements.

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