Kennewick voters this fall will weigh in for the second time in three months on a sales tax increase to pay for a public project.
The Kennewick Public Facilities District Board is proposing a one-tenth of 1 percent increase to finance expansion of the Three Rivers Convention Center on West Grandridge Boulevard.
The measure is set for the Nov. 5 ballot.
It's a project proponents say is necessary to keep the facility competitive in the region. And they're starting their push to convince voters of the merits of the plan.
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"The convention center as it sits now has brought a number of large events since it opened in 2004," said Ron Hue of Kennewick, part of the three-member committee charged with writing the official "pro" statement for the voters pamphlet.
The expansion would mean more visitors -- and visitor spending -- benefiting the entire community through economic development, Hue said.
Jim Beaver, a Benton County commissioner and former Kennewick mayor, also is on the pro committee, and said he supports a vibrant entertainment district in that part of the city. Don Hart is the third pro committee member.
The con committee has one member -- Bob Dowle of Kennewick, the former business manager of the Three Rivers Campus, which includes the convention center.
He was the only applicant.
Dowle said he's not necessarily against the proposed expansion but wants the public to understand the risk.
"There's no guarantee it would attract more business," he said. "It's like, if you build it they will come. If we build a great big ballpark, like in the movie (Field of Dreams), you hope that the crowds will come... But if you build it maybe they won't."
Kennewick voters in the August primary had their say on a separate sales tax request. The Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District Board proposed a one-tenth of 1 percent increase to pay for a regional aquatics facility and water park.
In that case, the tax measure also was on the ballot in Richland and Pasco. It was embraced in Pasco, where the aquatics facility was to be located. But Richland and Kennewick voters rejected it and it didn't gain enough overall support to pass.
The regional board hasn't yet decided whether it will run the measure again, modify it or take some other path. Board members last month decided to meet again in mid-November, after the fate of Kennewick's measure is decided, to talk next steps.
The Three Rivers Convention Center today has about 33,000 square feet of rentable space, including a 21,600-square-foot great hall. Last year, more than 380 events were held there, with total attendance topping 127,000 people.
The sales tax increase -- adding one penny to a $10 purchase -- would raise an estimated $1.5 million a year. That money would be used to pay down $20 million in bond debt taken on to pay for the expansion, which is planned to include a 50,000-square-foot exhibition hall and some additional meeting space.
As with the aquatics sales tax request, the Kennewick convention center tax doesn't end when the project is built. "The idea is by the time that bond is paid off, there will be a next phase that we need to do or (the facility) will now be old enough that we need to do a remodel," said Corey Pearson, campus executive director.
Pearson said the convention center lost out on holding more than two dozen potential events in the last year because of space constraints -- everything from a career and technical education event with 1,000 attendees to a music educators conference drawing up to 6,000 people. The events represented more than an estimated $14 million in visitor spending in the community, he said.
The center also risks losing existing business because of space issues, he said, pointing to a survey conducted as part of a 2011 study in which 44 percent of those who responded said their event would outgrow the convention center within five years.
The study also looked at putting in a hotel connected to the convention center. A private developer is taking on that project, with ground expected to be broken soon on a $7 million SpringHill Suites by Marriott.
If Kennewick voters approve the sales tax measure to expand the convention center, construction could begin in 2014 and take about a year.
Ballots will be mailed in mid-October.
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