Out of space, Three Rivers Convention Center officials seek help

By John Trumbo, Tri-City HeraldMarch 10, 2012 

The Three Rivers Convention Center has more business than it can handle.

Last year alone, Kennewick missed out on $14 million of spending in the community because there just was no place to hold all the convention requests, said Executive Director Corey Pearson.

He said a 60,000-square-foot expansion is needed, and a 200-room convention center hotel isn't far behind.

He told the Kennewick City Council at its recent retreat at the convention center that the 8-year-old facility near Columbia Center Boulevard is maxed out at 75,000 square feet.

A study commissioned 18 months ago shows the demand is immediate and that a hotel could be built at one end of the convention center and a new exhibition hall at the other, Pearson said.

The biggest glitch is the parking.

Parking already is at a premium when the convention center and Toyota Center have events, and adding a hotel and expanding convention space will just make it more critical.

Pearson said they already have received "a good number of responses" to a recent request for proposals from hotel developers.

"I expect to make a recommendation to the (Kennewick Public Facilities District) board, possibly in March," he said.

The hotel would need to have 150 to 250 rooms initially, and must have a lounge, restaurant service and a few meeting rooms as amenities. It would be three to four stories tall, and Pearson said he will recommend a hotelier that has national presence and a reservation system accessible through the internet that offers reward points.

He said the facilities district board initially wanted to see the hotel built on the northeast end of the convention center, but hoteliers prefer the southwest side for visibility and being closer to other hotels.

The facilities district board intends to move ahead on getting a hotel, but Pearson said adding a new exhibition hall will drive the hotel project.

The board hired C.H. Johnson Consulting Group of Chicago 18 months ago to take a hard look at the feasibility for expanding the convention center.

The study found:

w The new facility should be 60,000 square feet, with two-thirds for the exhibit hall, 6,000 square feet for meeting rooms and the remaining area for the lobby and providing other services.

w About 87 percent of the user groups said they believe having a headquarters hotel would make the convention center more attractive for their event. "That number was staggering to us," Pearson told the council.

w And 88 percent felt the same about the need for an exhibit hall.

"This is what we have people begging for," Pearson told the Herald.

"The one thing we presented to the (Tri-Cities) Regional Public Facilities District was that 26 conventions contacted us looking for space from June 2010 to June 2011 and we couldn't accommodate them. That was 50,000 people," Pearson said.

"Those 26 conventions we lost mean there were 100 others that passed us over because they knew we weren't big enough," he added.

Dale Lathim, chairman of the Washington State Potato Conference, said if more space can't be found in Kennewick, next year's event may end up with Washington and Oregon growers having to meet in Boise.

"This year we had to turn down more than 40 requests by companies to participate in our trade show even though we squeezed exhibitors into every nook and cranny possible. There were three companies that in the past (were) allowed to display equipment that we could not accommodate. ... This created some very hard feelings in our industry," Lathim wrote in a letter to the regional public facilities board.

Pearson said Lathim is so committed to keeping the conference in Kennewick he is willing to spend up to $100,000 extra for a large tent to handle the additional vendors so they can keep the annual conference at the Three Rivers Convention Center.

But any expansion of the convention center couldn't happen for at least 18 months.

Expanding the facility is one of four proposals seeking money from the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District. But that bid for $15 million may not come anytime soon because there has to be a public vote that will not happen until late 2013 at the earliest.

Pearson said his board isn't putting all of its hope for expansion on the regional PFD.

"We are going to be issuing a request for proposals within two months to get the design work done. We want to take it to the point where we will be set for shovel-ready funding," he said.

Yet to be resolved is how to find more parking spaces.

The 13 empty acres owned by the Kennewick Irrigation District just east of the convention center is the nearest answer, but it may not be easily obtained, Pearson said.

Price and demand for land around the convention center continue to generate private interest, so the regional PFD would have competition for the parcel.

Irrigation district officials have agreed to meet with Pearson and a city representative later this month to discuss the issue, said Judy Smith, KID's real estate contract administrator.

Smith said the city and KID agreed in 2005 that the use of those 13 acres should be a good fit to the convention center campus, but nothing was specific.

"The property has been (declared) surplus but we have not been marketing the property at all," Smith said.

A California developer who was interested a couple of years ago didn't follow through. The price being negotiated at the time was about $5.10 a square foot. KID more recently sold some of its land in the Vista Business and Technology Park off Grandridge Boulevard for as much as $5.75 a square foot, Smith said.

That could put the price for a future parking lot on KID's 13 acres at about $3.2 million.

"Parking will be a challenge. Is that a priority for us?" Kennewick Mayor Steve Young asked the council.

"The convention center expansion has got to be done, the hotel too," said Councilman Bob Olson.

"How about the KID land?" Young asked.

"We got to have it," Olson answered, with council members Don Britain and Sharon Brown agreeing. "We can't expand without the land," Brown said.

Councilman John Hubbard hesitated: "I think we need to ask the citizens."

The council plans to consider what its next step will be at its next retreat in April.

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