& & by Ted S, McGregor, Jr. & & & &

When it comes to big public projects, a group of Spokane boosters is hoping to prove they have learned from recent mistakes. The group of volunteers collectively known as Facilities 2000 aims to prove that the path traveled by the waste-to-energy plant, the failed STA office tower and the River Park Square parking garage is not worn out completely. In fact, the group hopes that the work it has done over the past year will lead to a much-needed expansion of the Spokane Convention Center.

"They have come up with a whole different plan now from what they had a couple years ago," says County Commissioner John Roskelley, who has attended the Facilities 2000 meetings.

Backers of the expansion have shown a willingness to listen, as they have scrapped the proposal that was floating around back in 1999, creating what they think is a leaner, better project.

"The confusion on this going in was unbelievable," says Shaun Cross, the chairman of Facilities 2000. "I don't know if we even have all the right questions yet, but we've got a lot more answers than we did a year ago."

After 140 meetings, Facilities 2000 is putting the finishing touches on a menu of options for local officials to choose from in putting together a proposal for the citizens of Spokane County to vote on.

The Spokane Conventions and Visitors Bureau and other groups that watch the local convention business have long advocated an expansion of the convention center. The problem has been that while other cities have expanded their facilities to accommodate ever-growing conventions, Spokane has remained the same size (about 38,000 square feet). Independent analyses and anecdotal evidence suggest that if Spokane had more space, it would be able to attract conventions that they hadn't previously been able to even compete for. The new proposal, which can still change, calls for a finished facility of 125,000 square feet along with two parking garages with about 1,000 spaces.

In economic terms, convention business is some of the best business a city can get, since it consists of people coming to town, leaving their money behind and going home. According to a 1997 study, an expanded convention center could generate an additional $24.5 million of new spending in Spokane County annually -- good news for local governments looking to expand their tax bases. But local boosters also see it as a way to market the city, as many conventioneers may have never visited before.

"All the statistics say we would draw in a lot more conventions," says Roskelley, "and with the golf, the mountains and the lakes, more people would take a look at us. It would definitely improve business."

But selling the concept to the residents of Spokane County remains a tall hill to climb. To the average citizen, the convention business is almost invisible. And passing a measure that can be viewed as more city-based in the unincorporated parts of the county is always tricky. County residents rejected the Spokane Arena the last time it was up for a vote, but the proposal passed on the strength of its support in the city.

Facilities 2000, always knowing that a vote was required (unlike in the cases of the waste-to-energy plant, the STA Plaza and the River Park Square parking garage), set to creating a proposal that will pass muster with the voters. And they also knew they probably don't have the luxury of running it by voters three times, as was the case with the Arena. The crucial tax rebate program from the state that could add up to as much as $20 million is only available for another 18 months or so. A vote must be held no later than the spring of 2002. Already, Tacoma and Vancouver are taking advantage of the program to build more convention space, and Everett is said to be working on a plan right now.

Facilities 2000 had the benefit of having had the proposal run up the flagpole in 1999, and they looked carefully at the reaction that false start generated.

"Having this drag on has had its benefits," says Patrick Jones, the finance subcommittee chairman for Facilities 2000.

Back in '99, there was concern about the cost, there was concern about how to pay for it and there was concern about how to sell the proposal countywide.

The group answered the cost issue by relocating the facility to the east of the existing one, still along the river instead of south of the Opera House, where landowners simply wanted too much money. Some of the property at the new site is city-owned and some of it is owned by the DoubleTree Hotel, which could be transferred in return for the hotel's participation in the project (something that has yet to be negotiated). The end result is a bigger facility that is less expensive (down to $70 million from $84 million).

How to pay for it was a subject cast in doubt when the Public Facilities District, which operates the Arena, commissioned a study that found they would be financially strapped at some point in the future. It now appears that study was more of a preemptive strike against the new facility piggybacking on the Arena than a real picture of the Arena's finances. That study looked at zero growth in the market, and most people familiar with the Arena's finances believe it is on very firm financial footing. Nonetheless, Facilities 2000 backed away from trying to combine all public facilities into one entity, as it could have led to opposition from Arena boosters during a campaign. Instead, the group now suggests creating a new PFD just for the convention center, the Opera House and perhaps Joe Albi Stadium.

While there are some legal issues to work out, it appears to be a workable solution financially. After the Arena's claim on the hotel/motel tax and the 0.1 percent of the local sales tax ends in 2017, the new PFD would tap those funds through 2031. By using back-loaded, zero coupon bonds, the project could be financed today with money that won't materialize for nearly another two decades. Another benefit is that by that time, the sales tax base may have grown to the point where the facility could be paid off early, although Facilities 2000 is only factoring in conservative sales tax growth.

Finally, to pass the plan county-wide, Facilities 2000 recommends that an additional $12 million go to renovating the Spokane County Fairgrounds, where many of the bigger events, like RV and boat shows, are staged. The county commissioners are interested in seeing this project occur, but whether it will resonate with voters outside the city remains to be seen.

"There are still going to be people who say this benefits only the city," says Cross, "but I think that's ridiculous. This will employ lots of people, and it's going to benefit the entire region."

Sometime next month, Facilities 2000 will cease to exist, and local officials will have to decide whether to put the proposal on the ballot. Elected officials may also decide to create some kind of public process to gather feedback and fine tune the project even more. It's also a chance to prove that Spokane can do a public project -- even a public-private project -- and restore some of the public confidence that has been lost in recent years.

"We're doing this right," says Cross. "We've kicked it around for a year, and we're being responsible and open."

And the issue appears to be made-to-order for the new mayor to show some leadership.

"This is a test case of doing a big, regional project," says Jones. "And if these projects are going to work, the elected officials are going to need to get behind them."

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About The Author

Ted S. McGregor Jr.

Ted S. McGregor, Jr. grew up in Spokane and attended Gonzaga Prep high school and the University of the Washington. While studying for his Master's in journalism at the University of Missouri, he completed a professional project on starting a weekly newspaper in Spokane. In 1993, he turned that project into reality...