Late Tuesday afternoon, the Public Facilities District (PFD) held a highly anticipated meeting at the Arena announcing the location of the convention center expansion, also known as CCX. Since voters approved the expansion of the Convention Center in May 2002, and after the various governments worked out the details, the site and design have been the remaining question marks. The PFD had considered going south, just across Spokane Falls Boulevard from the existing center, and to the east of the existing center along the Spokane River.
On Tuesday, the board announced it would be going into both sites. The PFD board unanimously approved to put the new exhibit hall on the east site, between the DoubleTree Hotel and Division Street, from which it will be connected to the existing convention center by a raised, glass-covered walkway. And the board also approved the location of a parking facility on the south site. Both sites are zoned to allow for the expansion, and the PFD already controls some land on both sites.
However, utilizing the east site does mean that one existing business will have to move.
"The new exhibit hall essentially goes in the hotel parking lot, yet Shenanigan's stays where it's at and the hotel stays where it's at. But the Azteca restaurant will have to move to a different downtown location," says Kevin Twohig, executive director of the Arena and a PFD board member. "We have agreements or letters of intent with all the involved property owners, except one to the south. But we fully expect to be able to work things out with that property owner."
Downtown business owners have lobbied to locate the entire CCX at the south site, arguing that it would bring conventioneers closer to the downtown restaurants and businesses, where they'll hopefully spend some money.
"The Downtown Spokane Partnership is meeting on Wednesday, so I'm not quite sure how we feel about this location, but I do expect we'll be supportive," said Mike Edwards, director of the DSP immediately following the site selection. "This is perhaps not the decision we would have liked for the board to make. To us, proximity to downtown is still an issue. But we want to continue to work within the process, just like we've done up until now."
The Downtown Plan identified the south site as the site for a convention center expansion, but Twohig explained how that recommendation came at a time when the east site wasn't an option. The Facilities 2000 Working Group, on the other hand, recommended expansion to the east.
"Proximity to downtown appears to be less of an issue if one examines the traffic pattern of delegates attending events with exhibits," says Twohig. "Most convention delegates leave the exhibit hall and go to their hotel room to freshen up before doing anything away from the convention."
Another factor that made the board lean toward the east site was the ability to dock and load larger vehicles at the site.
"The south site requires a loading facility that is open to Main Street and uses traffic lanes on Main Street for vehicles backing up," Twohig said at the PFD meeting. "The blended site plan creates the least traffic impact."
Locating the CCX along the river also lets the Convention and Visitors Bureau take advantage of the "wow" factor by showcasing one of the region's most scenic areas.
"We might even be able to incorporate a gateway to the river or something along those lines," said Jim Kolva, the consultant who wrote the environmental impact studies for the two sites. "Environmentally, the two sites are equal, I think. But the east site had more space and more flexibility. Proximity is an issue, but if we can improve the south block perhaps by a combination of parking, retail and commercial spaces, that will do a lot to link downtown to the convention center as well."
The final site announcement has been a long time coming, and the PFD has been criticized for dragging its feet, and especially for not having a site selected before the board asked voters for funding for the CCX three years ago.
"Initially, we thought we had to pick a site before we went to the voters, but if we had done so, then we would have been stuck with it," explained PFD Board Chairman Bill Williams Jr., adding that the selection process has allowed the PFD to make a better decision.
Prior to the board actually approving this site -- often referred to as the blended site, or the mixed site -- the floor was open to public comment. But of the approximately 30 people in the Arena's Champions Room, only Edwards had a question: He wanted to know if the project was contingent on having control of parking on the south site, the site where one landowner has yet to agree to sell.
"Parking is a revenue stream for us," answered Twohig, "and by locating parking on the south block, closer to downtown, closer to the Opera House, we feel like the parking structure will produce more revenue than if it was on the east side of the current convention center."
A decision at this point means the PFD has met a very important deadline: For the project to receive approximately $30 million in sales tax rebates from the state, groundbreaking has to take place before the end of this year.
"We'll definitely make that," said Twohig, "that's not the kind of money you would want to miss out on. We have been working on this project for years already, but to make sure no one questions whether we've met the deadline, we are going to start some essential maintenance projects at the existing site in December. The real work starts next summer."
Last week, the PFD sold $77 million worth of bonds to finance the expansion project, which is part of a larger plan voters approved in 2002 to expand and upgrade facilities throughout Spokane County. Initially, the county was going to issue bonds for all the improvements, including those at the Spokane County Fair & amp; Expo Center and those at Mirabeau Point, located in the city of Spokane Valley. After many negotiations, bonds are being issued separately for each project. But the ownership of the Opera House, the existing Convention Center and the Ag Trade Center will shift from the city to the PFD on Sept. 1.
The next step is to start booking conventions for when the new facility opens, sometime around July 2006. But the competition with other cities is expected to be fierce.
"There is a 40 percent increase in convention center capacity in Washington state alone," said Erik Skaggs, a PFD board member. "We are going to be competing in a tough market, but I think we are doing the right thing. I think we'll be the showcase for how to do it."