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Kennewick convention center expansion effort may lack key support

Convincing Kennewick voters to pay for expanding the Three Rivers Convention Center may fail again if the Kennewick Public Facilities District can’t get some key players on board.

The concept that the convention center owner is working on would connect the convention center and the Toyota Center with new multipurpose and concessions areas.

The idea is to have a multipurpose exhibit hall that also serves as a performing arts venue and for the concessions to fill a gap in Toyota Center amenities, say public facilities district officials.

The district is trying to figure out a way to pass a bond so it doesn’t lose out on business from larger conventions and the visitor spending they bring to Tri-City businesses.

The public facilities district already had a challenging task because voters turned down a sales tax request for a convention center expansion more than a year ago. About 57 percent of voters opposed the proposal in the November 2013 general election.

The current concept came together as the public facilities district searched for an appealing way to meet the needs of convention-goers and others.

But the proposal doesn’t have the wholehearted support of Tri-City performing arts groups or the owners of the Tri-City Americans, the Toyota Center’s anchor tenant.

Bob Tory, longtime Americans general manager and co-owner, has questioned the idea of connecting to the Toyota Center when the 27-year-old facility is in desperate need of capital improvements. He wants more discussion on building a replacement coliseum.

And the nonprofit Arts Center Task Force has been working with the Port of Kennewick on an idea for a stand-alone, first-phase performing arts center on port-owned Vista Field property.

The task force includes the Mid-Columbia Symphony, Mid-Columbia Mastersingers, Mid-Columbia Ballet and Mid-Columbia Musical Theatre.

A performing arts center is being considered as a possible catalyst project to jump start the first phase of the redevelopment of the former airfield. And task force leaders have called Vista Field the best chance for the community to actually get such a center.

The task force is keeping options open, but the public facilities district hasn’t met with them yet to work on the convention center expansion proposal.

Public Facilities District Board member John Givens recently questioned whether the public facilities district would be able to get buy-in from the performing arts community now that a stand-alone performing arts center is being suggested for Vista Field.

The public facilities district needs to build multipurpose space to meet convention center needs, Givens said. It can’t just be a performing arts center.

If the task force doesn’t go for it, Kennewick Mayor Steve Young said he thinks there won’t be anything to take to voters.

Givens recently told the rest of the public facilities district’s board that he feels its expansion plans are in jeopardy.

The facilities district had planned to take a sales tax request to a public vote this year to pay for the expansion. But Givens said he does not believe they will be ready.

Barbara Johnson, the facilities district board president, said they will have just one chance to ask voters to support the convention center project.

Making a performing arts center part of it can help sell it. And she questioned how a stand-alone performing arts center could make it on its own financially.

The port has said it can’t subsidize it, and the city already is makes up the difference between Toyota Center expenses and revenue, she said.

Rustin Hall of ALSC Architects is still working on an updated concept for the expansion, said Corey Pearson, executive director of the Three Rivers Campus.

And the public facilities district hopes to have something to start showing groups, including the Arts Center Task Force, by the end of this week.

The public facilities district owns the convention center and will ultimately decide which expansion plan to take before voters.

But the Kennewick council also gets to vote on the plan because the public facilities district needs approval from city to take on any more debt.