Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center is already seeing the difference having an attached hotel makes in attracting business.
SpringHill Suites by Marriott isn't expected to open until December. But Corey Pearson, executive director of the Three Rivers Campus, said bookings have already picked up for 2015 through 2017.
The 122-room, $7 million hotel is under construction, with the metal beams of the first two stories of the five-story hotel visible.
It's smaller than what Pearson said Kennewick Public Facilities District officials originally wanted to see.
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But that hasn't prevented the new hotel from working its magic. Just being connected to the convention center with an enclosed walkway means meeting planners who wouldn't have considered the Tri-Cities before are doing so now, Pearson said.
The construction has caused some minor hiccups, though. Some Tri-Cities Fever fans were unable to find parking in the paved parking lot and the gravel lot commonly used for Toyota Center and convention center events at an early April home game.
The new hotel is permanently eating up fewer than 40 parking spaces.
Available parking also has slightly declined recently because Baker Boyer Bank-owned land is now for sale and not available for overflow parking anymore, Pearson said.
And some parking is temporarily blocked off during the hotel construction, he said.
But the main issue that will need to be addressed is that many patrons meet at the campus instead of carpooling, so the average number of riders per car tends to be closer to one rather than the three per car that is the norm for most event centers, Pearson said.
Parking lots have been equally full, whether there are 2,800 people in attendance at eventsor 5,000 people.
There are about 1,600 parking spots available in the paved and gravel parking lots, Pearson said. More parking is within walking distance at the Benton County Justice Center and nearby retailers.
On New Year's Eve, more than 7,000 people were at the Three Rivers Campus watching a sold-out Tri-City Americans game against the Spokane Chiefs and attending First Night Tri-Cities. Pearson said they ran a shuttle to satellite parking lots, and only ended up having 60 cars use those lots.
Still, parking will need to be addressed as the campus continues to grow. Paid parking and parking garages are likely.
"We are going to do everything we can to keep that off the table as long as possible," Pearson said.
Free parking is a competitive advantage, since most event centers have paid parking and longer hikes to the venue, Pearson said.
A parking garage is likely 15 to 20 years away, since it's much more expensive than a surface parking lot, he said.
The public facilities district will be working with the Port of Kennewick this summer on continued planning for the Three Rivers Entertainment District and the port's former Vista Field Airport property.
The port recently hired a consultant to develop a master plan for redeveloping the former airport, a project that may cost up to $383,000. The redevelopment of the 113 acres may include a mix of commercial, office, retail, public parks and residential space
The public facility district's proposed master plan would reconfigure the entertainment district toward the former airport. Public facility district members recently told Kennewick City Council that their 20-year wish list for the entertainment district includes a performing arts center, a replacement for the Toyota Center and second ice rink and a second hotel attached to the convention center.
Pearson said redevelopment at Vista Field presents the possibility of creating an area where people come, park and walk, spending time at retail shops, wineries or an event.
Port officials have cautioned that redevelopment will take time. Setting the stage alone could take years.
In the more immediate future, public facilities district members haven't given up on plans to expand the convention center, which local tourism officials say is critical to keep the center's current customers.
Kennewick voters last November turned down a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for a $20 million expansion and improvement project.
The failure inspired groups that use the convention center to get involved in making an expansion happen, Pearson said. The largest hurdle is that people who use the center don't necessarily live in Kennewick, so they don't have a vote.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; email@example.com