by Ted S. McGregor, Jr.
It's been nearly five months since Spokane County voters agreed to extend local hotel taxes into the far future to help fund an expansion to the Spokane Convention Center, but still no site has been selected. Yet, according to members of the Public Facilities District board, everything's moving ahead as planned.
"No, there's no site chosen yet," says Shaun Cross, a Spokane attorney and a member of the PFD board. "We're still gathering more information to make a good decision. We don't have a deadline for it, but we're trying to move the process forward as quickly as possible."
The board needs to choose between two sites for the expansion -- one to the east of the current Spokane Center, running along the river, and the other to the south of it, across the street from the Opera House. Some key pieces of information are expected to come into focus before the end of the year. Appraisals of both sites are expected within the month, and environmental impact statements for each site should be ready in November. With such information at their fingertips, the PFD board should be able to make a decision in early 2003, says Cross, who has worked on the project for three years.
And if people want input about which way the decision will go, they'll get a chance at 6 pm on Oct. 15 at the Ag Trade Center, when the parameters of the EIS reports will be discussed. Jim Kolva of Kolva and Associates is preparing those reports, and although the public meeting is specifically geared toward the details of the EIS reports, people can share their thoughts on the project in general.
"The EIS is going to treat both sites equally," says Kolva. "It will be a tool [the board] can use -- information that will help them select a site."
"This is going to be an incredibly public process," says Cross, adding that critics of the PFD's private meetings of the past few months will get plenty of chances to be heard. After the meeting about the EIS, the city will hold public hearings about acquiring the site and turning over the facilities to the PFD; the county will hold hearings about issuing the necessary bonds; and the PFD itself will hold hearings about the overall plan, once it has come together. The public process should be wrapped up by April, says Cross.
Comparing the two sites is tough; both have pros and cons, both subtle and obvious. Going to the east would allow the center to face the Spokane River, giving it a setting unique among convention centers nationwide. When the Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau is trying to attract conventions to town, the setting could be a major selling point that might land Spokane some additional business. The east site also reaches out to WSU-Spokane and SIRTI a little more, perhaps linking downtown with the campus. But relocating existing businesses could complicate the site, and traffic issues are tricky: the site is boxed in by the busy Division and Browne interchange.
Meanwhile, the site to the south is favored by some downtown boosters, since it puts conventioneers a little closer to the majority of the restaurants and shopping. Also, it would remove the surface level parking that has long been considered an eyesore. But the site is separated from the rest of the center by Spokane Falls Blvd., and the property owner isn't completely thrilled with the idea.
"We've had visions for the site long before the city had an interest in it," says Glen Cloninger, an architect and owner of much of the parcel in question.
Cloninger says he favors the site to the east, in part because it would leave him to develop his land as he chooses. He has envisioned a mixed use tower, with parking, offices, retail and even perhaps residential uses. "These dreams and hopes are still in place, but they are compromised by the city's activity," says Cloninger. "There's not much we can do to move forward right now."
The only problem he sees with the east site is that parking is too far from the Opera House, which he says needs more parking capacity. Another concern citizens have expressed is that property owners may try to get top dollar for their property since it's suddenly in such high demand. To prevent that from happening, the PFD is prepared, as a last resort, to employ the city's power of eminent domain if necessary. In that case, property owners would be paid fair market value and be forced off their land. Hilton Hotels, parent of the DoubleTree and owner of much of the site to the east, says they are willing to abide by appraisals and the decision of the PFD board.
"We'll be as cooperative as we can, regardless of which site is chosen," says Dean Feldmeier, general manager of the downtown Spokane DoubleTree Hotel. "Either way, this project will be a huge boost for the local economy."
But Azteca restaurants of Seattle has floated the idea of building its own hotel on the land it owns in the vicinity. Some say this has just been a move to inflate the value of their property; others believe the company is serious about such a project. Either way, it complicates things.
That potential project within a project is just one of the complexities waiting to be untangled. The cost of the land, the ease of construction, traffic issues, the various claims of land owners, the environmental issues -- all of it will have to be weighed before a decision can be made, says Cross.
"We're really going to be deliberate and thoughtful," he says. "But, we're moving as fast as we can."