by Dan Richardson

When people in suits talk fondly of regionalism or wistfully of economic development, many end up talking about the proposal to expand the Spokane Convention Center.

Supporters say expanding the center would create space for larger conventions, attracting visitors and dollars to the entire area. Skeptics wonder if the idea isn't a financial sinkhole with intangible public benefits.

In May, residents countywide get the opportunity to decide.

"We expect to be on the ballot May 21," says Kevin Twohig, executive director of the Public Facilities District (PFD).

The PFD runs the Spokane Arena and is expected to take over operating the Spokane Center -- the combined convention center and opera house on Spokane Falls Boulevard -- from the city, if voters approve the expansion plan. It would also assume its $4 million debt.

The centerpiece of the estimated $96 million project is an impressive expansion of the current convention center, tripling its existing 38,700-square-foot exhibit hall. There's more to the project, technically called the "Regional Facilities Plan," than elbow room for booths, though, for it includes a $19 million sweetener for the county: $12 million for improvements to the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center and $7 million for the 80-acre Mirabeau Point community complex near the Spokane Valley Mall.

But the expanded convention center is the jewel of the regional facilities plan. Polishing that jewel is a complex task undertaken by three separate governments (the City of Spokane, the county and the PFD), all of which must approve the ambitious plan even before voters do.

The various parties remain in negotiations, but officials say the outlines of the tentative arrangements are these: The PFD would bring its sound financial grasp -- the Arena has enjoyed more than $1 million in net operating profit since opening in 1995 -- to running the convention center. The city must guarantee the PFD sufficient sources of revenue to pay off the convention center's $4 million debt from previous construction, and to operate it in the black. The county would likely be the issuing agency for the bonds, wielding its good credit rating to secure bonds at a lower interest than the city could, then lending that money to the PFD.

Then there's the deadline. These complex negotiations must be completed soon enough for voters to approve the plan so construction can begin by the end of the year. That's the latest that new building projects can start and still make local governments eligible for a special state sales tax refund. Officials believe the refund would bring $30 million back to the region that otherwise would have gone into the state's general fund.

The spotlight is now on the PFD, which is the lead agency for producing architectural and financial plans of a larger, snazzier convention center. The PFD is working out financial specifics with both the county and the city, including sources of revenue, say Twohig and Spokane City Administrator Jack Lynch. Three expected sources of income necessary to pay off the bonds would be the state sales tax refund, an existing local hotel room tax and a 0.1 percent sales tax. Then there are other sources that would be necessary to assure the PFD board that it isn't signing onto a money-losing proposition, officials say. The board expects an expanded convention center to lose money on tickets and exhibit hall rentals alone. How the PFD would cover those operating costs is a point of optimistic discussion with the city, says Twohig.

Some boosters think making a convention profit isn't the whole game, given the expected economic windfall from thousands of visitors filling hotel rooms and eating at area restaurants.

"I think most convention centers do operate at a loss, but there are huge economic reasons to do so," says Shaun Cross, a PFD board member and former chair of the Facilities 2000 working group that studied the regional facilities.

Twohig says public facilities board members would like to release their financial plan by the end of the month.

How an expanded convention center would be configured remains another sticky question. The PFD board is expecting an architectural study as early as this week that lays out three options, says Twohig, one with an expanded convention center to the south of Spokane Falls Boulevard in what is now mostly surface-level parking; one to the east, around and behind the DoubleTree Hotel; and the third, building a larger facility in both directions.

The two main configurations -- the south option and the east option -- share many of the same advantages, like parking connected to the facility, a new lobby and larger, more flexible exhibition possibilities, according to a PFD document. It may be the drawbacks that separate the two options. Building east would mean demolishing two restaurants and some hard bargaining with DoubleTree officials, who say they'd prefer that their hotel be left alone. Building south eliminates these problems and ties the convention center more directly into the downtown; its greatest drawback seems to be that it lacks much river view.

So what's taken so long to decide? Money. Specifically, the price of the land, says Twohig: "Which one can we get? Both of them have property owners with their own agendas."

The PFD board may not come to a conclusion on which location is best by May 21, the expected vote date. Officials there say the board will ask voters to approve a plan with the knowledge that a final building plan is in the works.

Deadline pressure and technical complexities consume convention center supporters' efforts, but probably the highest hurdle before the regional facilities plan is politics, in the form of that old friction between residents of the city and the county. Can convention center cheerleaders convince county residents the plan is good for everybody, regardless of city lines?

The $19 million set aside for the fairgrounds and Mirabeau Point was "absolutely" pivotal to county support, says Spokane County Chief Executive Officer Francine Boxer. Arranging to issue bonds, essentially a large loan, for a convention center alone would likely have been untenable.

"When it's a city-county project, it changes everything," says Boxer, adding, "Residents in unincorporated areas deserve a share of that pot."

In a darker shade of regionalism, the politicking might get nasty this spring, with some supporters of a proposed Spokane Valley city threatening to launch a campaign smearing the convention center expansion. That would be in retaliation for city officials indirectly delaying a vote on the new city over a boundary dispute.

Curiously missing in the talk of such a campaign is any mention of the planned improvements for the fairgrounds and Mirabeau Point -- both of which are in the middle of the proposed Valley city.

"This thing could be enormous for the community," and its economic development, says Cross, the PFD board member. "If we mess this up, we'll have stupid with a capital S on our forehead."

Northwest Winterfest @ Spokane County Fair & Expo Center

Fridays, 5-8 p.m., Saturdays, 4-8 p.m. and Sundays, 3-6 p.m. Continues through Jan. 1
  • or