Convention center expansion on ballot in Kennewick

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldOctober 28, 2013 

Artist's rendering of the proposed expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick.

COURTESY OF THE KENNEWICK PUBLIC FACILITIES DISTRICT

Kennewick voters have a week left to weigh in on the fate of a proposed Three Rivers Convention Center expansion and improvement project.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District is proposing in the general election a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for the $20 million project.

Ballots are due by Nov. 5.

Supporters say the work is needed to maintain existing business and attract new events to the convention center on West Grandridge Boulevard.

A citizens committee formed to promote the measure, and it has raised more than $20,000.

The proposal doesn't have organized opposition, although one former Kennewick mayor is urging voters to reject it.

The sales tax increase would add one penny to a $10 purchase, with the money used to pay back bond debt taken on to finance the project.

The work would include adding about 50,000 square feet of exhibit space, plus some additional space, renovations to the great hall and 500 parking spots.

The convention center today has about 33,000 square feet of rentable space, including a 21,600-square-foot main hall.

More than 380 events were held at the facility last year, with attendance topping 127,000 people.

But the convention center has lost out on potential business in the last year -- more than two dozen conferences and events-- because of space constraints, officials have said. That lost business represented $18 million in visitor spending in the Tri-Cities, they have said.

And existing business also is at risk, they've said, noting a 2011 survey in which 44 percent of those who responded said their event would outgrow the facility within five years.

"I don't like the idea of lost opportunities," said Mike McWhorter, campaign chairman of Citizens for Expansion, the citizens group promoting the measure.

He noted that visitors who spend money in Kennewick will help foot the bill for the expansion project through the sales tax funding method. And the tourist spending that comes as a result of a larger convention center will benefit the entire community, McWhorter said.

Officials also say the expansion plans fit in with the longterm vision for the Three Rivers Entertainment District -- a vision that also includes a performing arts center, a new Toyota Center and more hotels and restaurants.

While the measure doesn't have organized opposition, Vic Epperly, a former Kennewick mayor, is speaking out against it.

He said a better model is for the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District to control the entire sales tax revenue stream allowed for public facilities districts under state law. The maximum is two-tenths of 1 percent.

That would allow the regional group to address over time all the regional facilities projects the public wants, he said.

But passage of the Kennewick Public Facilities District's sales tax increase would eat into the regional group's taxing authority, limiting the projects it can accomplish, he said.

Voters "should be given the opportunity to allow the regional PFD to maximize its potential to the community," Epperly told the Herald.

The regional PFD proposed a sales tax increase in August for an aquatics facility and water park, but the measure failed.

The regional group limited its request to one-tenth of 1 percent, leaving the option open for local city PFDs like the one in Kennewick to go after their own projects.

Pasco Mayor Matt Watkins, president of the regional PFD board, told the Herald that he doesn't expect his group to pursue the maximum two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase in the near future, calling Epperly's ideas "extremely speculative."

He said they are reviewing why the aquatics measure failed and watching to see how the convention center proposal fares.

Like the aquatics center proposal, the convention center sales tax increase doesn't have a sunset date.

After the bonds for the expansion and improvement project are paid off, the sales tax revenue would be used for another phase of expansion or remodeling of the facility, officials have said.

Citizens for Expansion has raised $19,600 in cash contributions and more than $800 in in-kind contributions, according to a tally Monday from the state Public Disclosure Commission.

The top donor is VenuWorks, the company contracted to manage the convention center, with $12,500 in donations.

The Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, A-1 Hospitality and Chervenell Construction also have donated, the records show.

-- Sara Schilling: 582-1529; sschilling@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @saraTCHerald

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