by Dan Richardson
Ah, the grand old days of May, when all the convention center boosters needed was a few thousand voters to agree to their $96 million dreams. Now those dreams have come true, but reality is a bit rougher.
Or at least slower. Despite grand dreams and statements, the convention center expansion (CCX) has some big hurdles to overcome, everything from bonding requirements to finding a site to put the 100,000-square-foot project.
Members of the three governments involved with the process say that CCX is grinding forward, but the city of Spokane, the county and the Public Facilities District (which will run the facility) have yet to sign any interlocal agreements, officials say. When they might is anybody's guess. By the end of the year is probably as accurate a prediction as any.
"It would be really nice if we were to the point of knowing all these things and pretty well settled into them by the end of the year," says Bill Williams, founder of Telect and chairman of the all-volunteer PFD board. "It would be nice if by the end of 2003, we could begin construction and have this thing built by 2005."
CCX is shorthand for the convention center expansion (plus a couple of unrelated Valley projects), but it really stands for a complex structure of agreements and understandings between the city, county and the PFD. It's a structure that appears to be a little wobbly now, with county commissioners' questions and occasional rumors ricocheting around media and political circles. Add to the mix a surprising city council vote on June 24 that sent a reminder: Not everyone in public service is gung-ho for CCX. The dissenting city council faction (Steve Eugster, Cherie Rodgers, Steve Corker) blocked the mayor's emergency budget ordinance request for $40,500. The money was slated to pay for appraising the two possible CCX sites.
"The issue here is, we're not having communications from the mayor or the Public Facilities District on what I call the major issues," says Councilman Steve Corker. "What I was trying to do with my vote was send a signal not to assume" to act without council approval.
City Administrator Jack Lynch says the mayor instead authorized spending the money out of existing budget allocations. The money is necessary for a central piece of CCX, selecting which of the two potential sites are best for expansion. Both are located adjacent to the existing convention center in downtown Spokane.
The PFD and the two landowners, Spokane architect Glen Cloninger and the DoubleTree hotel corporation, have agreed on a private appraiser, officials say.
It's almost as if some -- perhaps most -- legislators involved with CCX didn't expect the May 21 vote to pass. After all, one reason to place it on the ballot then was to allow time for a second or even third ballot attempt before a temporary state law providing a chunk of sales tax funding ran out, officials said. The ordinance having passed, now it's time to get serious about the devilish details.
"Now everybody realizes, gosh, we're going to have to make some decisions here. And the commissioners are in that position, too," says Williams. "I think if everybody can hold hands, we can get through these things."
The full PFD board, the city council and the county commissioners -- who have questions of their own before playing banker and issuing the necessary bonds -- have yet to sit down as a group, though there has been some communication. County Commissioner Kate McCaslin says she's met with the mayor, and PFD staff have talked with county staff.
McCaslin says, "The PFD needs to sort what they want, then come to us."
That could take some time, but the PFD is working on a number of issues, says Williams. The board has formed itself into several two-person committees (meetings of two legislators aren't subject to open meetings laws) to steer through some issues. Beside site selection, tough questions remain: What will happen to the city staff now working at the Convention Center and Opera House facilities that the PFD will take over? And who is really liable if the worst-case scenario happens and the newer, larger convention center is a financial flop? PFD officials have said time and again that it's risky, but some like Commissioner Phil Harris say the bondholders might end up holding the bag, and others like McCaslin say they want the city to underwrite more than the $350,000 it has already pledged to the annual budget.
"The public vote has been taken, but the questions still exist," says Corker. Don't "be upset if we [legislators] have questions."