by Dan Richardson

There's only one sure thing about the Spokane Convention Center expansion plan: It's running out of time. Who will build a new convention center, what it will look like, even where it will be located -- all of those questions are up in the air. Numerous details in the expansion plans still require painstaking negotiations and, ultimately, voter approval. And it all must be completed in time to begin construction at the site before the end of next year.

The rush is on because a special state sales tax refund is critical to paying for the approximately $95 million expansion. And in order to qualify for this special funding source -- which would allow the county to keep a portion of the sales tax normally sent to Olympia -- the projects must be started by the end of 2002. That means project players like the City of Spokane and Spokane County have just 14 months left.

Given that public officials and business leaders have been kicking around the idea of expanding the convention hall for five years, that's a tight deadline. Officials hope to take a plan to voters this spring.

"Nobody's really taken the ball and run with it," says John Roskelley, Spokane County Commissioner. A spring vote "is going to be real tough, but it's possible."

Examined by multiple committees on one hand and plagued by spotty leadership on the other, the idea of building a larger, snazzier convention center has refused to die. There are signs of renewed support now, including the unanimous City Council vote on Oct. 8 that sent a bare-bones plan to the Spokane Public Facilities District (PFD), the group that would likely run the expanded convention center.

Council members also voted to give the PFD both staff resources and up to $50,000 to conduct its studies and negotiations. If this indicates a growing momentum for the expansion plan, it also means crunch time for board members of the city, county and the PFD.

As one city council member said immediately after the vote, "I hope you have your Christmas shopping done."

The current convention center takes up

a city block on Spokane Falls Boulevard

with several stories of mirrored windows and white concrete. Last year, the facility housed 41 conventions, bringing in 164,000 guests who spent $26 million on hotel rooms and dinners, says Johnna Boxley, director of the Spokane Center -- the combined convention center and Opera House.

But the current facility does not have enough space to accommodate more conventions, expansion backers say, limiting the economic benefit the city could potentially reap from an expanded convention facility.

There are two possible locations for an enlarged facility: one is to the east of the current facility, likely in conjunction with the DoubleTree Hotel; the other is directly to the south of Spokane Falls Boulevard in what is now mostly surface-level parking.

An expanded center would likely gain enough business to host a third convention for every two it sees now, says John Brewer, president of the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau (SRCVB). The region has lost $3 million in convention business in the past three months alone because convention arrangers either needed more room than the center has or couldn't get the dates they wanted, he adds.

That's the sort of lost money that got people thinking about enlarging the center in the first place. Expansion boosters would like to more than triple the existing 38,700 square-foot exhibit hall, and increase the number of meeting rooms from 13 to 30.

The result, officials say, would be more conventions, more tax dollars and more jobs for Spokane -- perhaps as many as 1,000 jobs and $400 million pumped into the county in the next few decades, says Shaun Cross. A lawyer by day, Cross was chairman of Facilities 2000, a working group formed by various governments that studied the expansion idea. He is now one of the PFD's five board members, who will be central to the final decision on the expansion.

"It's a huge way to energize an economy," Cross says. "This thing is a no-brainer."

The project comes with a hefty price tag, somewhere between $85 million and $95 million, with perhaps as much as one-fifth of that going toward county facility improvements -- most likely in the form of more money for the Spokane County Interstate Fairgrounds.

The project would probably be paid for by bonds, split 40/40/20 among the city, the county and the PFD. Backers say there wouldn't be any property tax increases, though, because the bonds would be paid for by a combination of the state sales tax refund (generating an estimated $30 million to $36 million), and an already existing local hotel room tax, plus a one-tenth of one percent sales tax.

Probabilities abound, but certainties are scarce, because no one has hashed out a final deal. A final deal? Ah, here's the rub -- three boards must agree on a plan before they can send a referendum to voters.

And people on the boards are working together, but they are all volunteers, Roskelley says. "Sometimes trying to get your arms around a project this big with volunteers is difficult."

The list of groups involved in the convention center expansion debate is head-spinning. It includes convention-boosters like the SRCVB, a newly formed political action committee (CERF -- Citizens for Exposition and Regional Facilities) and those who own property abutting the convention center, like DoubleTree Hotel and the Mexican restaurant Azteca.

First, though, leaders must forge a common agreement among three government boards: the city council, the county commissioners and the PFD.

The city's portion is, apparently, the simplest of the three. With its unanimous resolution, city council members urged the PFD to action and authorized staff time and money to smooth the way. The council left open the location question, giving that negotiation leverage to the PFD board members, whom the city wants to make the final decision.

The city currently runs the Spokane Center, spending $2.2 million a year to do so. One question to be resolved is, if the PFD eventually takes over the Center's management, who would assume the already existing $4 million debt?

These will be "very delicate" negotiations, says City Administrator Jack Lynch.

Roskelley says he and his two fellow

commissioners are generally supportive

of the expansion plan, but that it doesn't stop at city limits. The county commissioners would very much like to see Valley tourist and recreation facilities improvements perhaps as part of the convention center plan, including a civic center at Mirabeau Point, near the Spokane Valley Mall.

But the biggest knot to unravel is a state law that would require the PFD, as bond-issuer, to own the Valley facilities. The PFD board would have to own Mirabeau Point, for example -- something the PFD doesn't want, and the county doesn't want to hand over.

"All eyes are pointing toward the Public Facilities District," says Cross.

The PFD runs the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. Its board, according to most reports, does so quite well, and the Arena has enjoyed more than $1 million in net operating profits since opening in 1995. That's the sort of success the city would like the PFD to bring to an enlarged convention center.

The problem is that the PFD has no authority to run a convention center. Until it changed its mission statement this summer, PFD board members were not even supposed to consider operating facilities besides the Arena, says Cross. Actually to take over something like the convention center would require a voter-approved change of the PFD's charter.

"We're certainly going to want assurances that whatever the PFD accepts to take won't harm the Arena financially or in any other way," says Bill Williams, chairman of the PFD board. The group is willing to consider running the convention center, but there are tough questions first, he adds. "Those questions must have real answers."

Seeking those answers, the PFD board has taken two steps toward hammering out a convention center deal: It asked an accounting firm to conduct another financial history and analysis of the convention center, and board members approved their executive director, Kevin Twohig, to approach architectural and engineering firms for design bids. Given these complexities, the expansion plan faces more hurdles than an Olympic high jumper.

And while the three boards appear to be aimed in the same direction, their time is running out. Every person contacted for this article said meeting the deadlines -- even getting ballots before voters this spring -- could be done. It will be tough, each said, torturous even, but possible.

But at least for now, recent activity has spurred a sense of hope. As Twohig puts it, "I don't see any insurmountable hurdles."

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