by William Stimson

After thinking about expanding its convention center for almost a decade, Spokane seems to have worked itself into something of a corner. The Public Facilities District board is officially still considering where to expand the convention center, but its decision is all but certain to be the so-called "East Site" -- at the extreme edge of Spokane's Central Business district, enclosed by the river, Division Street, Spokane Falls Boulevard and the DoubleTree Hotel.

All things being equal, no one would choose this as the place for a convention center. The choice was dictated by the fact that other options were closed: the old convention center is where it is, the river is on the north, there's no room to the west, the owner of the land to the south doesn't want to sell, the DoubleTree Hotel already occupies the space to the immediate east. Out of options, the Public Facilities District board (PFD) will take what it can get and make the best of it.

The site is about as far as you can get from the hub of Spokane shopping. This is more than an inconvenience to visitors. The only rationale for the public subsidizing conventions is the hope that those who attend will make their way into stores and restaurants to spend money.

PFD Executive Director Kevin Twohig doubts that this is a problem. On the contrary, he says, convention-goers will be happy to learn that shopping begins just four blocks away. "In a larger city, they might have to walk 10 blocks to get to the shopping, " he says. Perhaps, but separating customers from stores flies in the face of that famous list of the most important considerations in retailing: 1. Location. 2. Location. 3. Location.

Two years ago, developer John Stone suggested that the expansion of the convention center escape the site limitations by taking the expansion to the other end of Spokane Falls Boulevard. He suggested the new center be built on the little used southwest corner of Riverfront Park, across Post Street from city hall. This would place it at the heart of the shopping district, provide parkers to support the underused River Park Square parking garage, and put visitors to the city next to the best views of the Falls and at the entrance to the emerging River Gorge Park.

This plan was never seriously considered because it violated the whole purpose of the original plan, which was to make the current facility larger so it could handle even bigger events.

But since the original plan was formed, some important things have changed. For one, convention facilities have proliferated in the Northwest. To succeed in this new environment, Spokane may have to offer more attractions and settle for smaller conventions. A more centrally located, though smaller, facility might be a better match to the new convention business picture.

Another thing that has changed is that Spokane has suddenly developed a second "convention center" at the west end of the Central Business District. The re-opened Davenport Hotel offers some of the most beautiful meeting rooms in the Western United States. The new Pennington Ballroom is a major addition to Spokane's convention facilities. Larger audiences can adjourn across the street to the Met theater. Even larger groups now have access to the Fox Theater a block further down Sprague and set to re-open within the next 18 months.

These meeting facilities would be but a three-block walk -- through Spokane's shopping district -- to Stone's proposed site for a new facility. Taken together, they might match the capacity of the proposed east-end expansion. In any case, they would certainly be more interesting than the typical concrete block and paisley-carpeted convention center.

Here's the biggest reason the Public Facilities District board should think globally when it weighs sites. None of these facilities -- the Fox, the Met, the Davenport, River Park Square -- are financially secure for the long run. Any or all could close or degrade unless Spokane finds ways to employ them. Think what that would mean to Spokane's ability to attract conventioneers.

It may not be practical, for reasons that would elude a convention business amateur, to change the site of the Convention Center at this late date. But the possibilities are so intriguing that the board, at the very least, should explain why it is not practical before it decides this important part of Spokane's future.

William Stimson is a professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University.

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