A Kennewick City councilman and a candidate for an open seat on the council are voicing opposition to a sales tax request to expand the Three Rivers Convention Center complex in Kennewick.
Councilman John Trumbo and candidate Bill McKay are part of a four-man committee formed to convince voters that Proposition 17-4, dubbed “The Link,” is a bad idea.
The Kennewick Public Facilities District is submitting a tax request to voters in November. Voters previously rejected a similar request in 2013 and an updated version that added a 2,300-seat Broadway-style theater in 2016.
The 2017 edition includes a new twist — a $5 million ice rink to replace the aging one at Pasco’s TRAC. Franklin County is considering closing it for financial reasons. Without a new rink, youth hockey will not have enough ice to support its programs.
The $45 million package of projects would add 110,000 square feet to the convention center and provide major upgrades to the Toyota Center, including better accommodations for visitors who use wheelchairs, and the theater in between them, hence the name “The Link”.
If voters say yes to The Link, the Kennewick sales tax will rise by two-tenths of a percent to 8.8 percent. It would add two cents to a $10 purchase.
That will raise an estimated $3.5 million annually, with proceeds dedicated to repaying debt for the $45 million package of projects. Supporters say the tax will end when the bonds are repaid in 20 years or earlier if tax collections are higher than expected.
Opponents calculate it will cost the average household $30 a year, half again more than the $20 car tab fee that angered Richland residents this year. They also object to the addition of the ice rink, calling it a costly bid to win votes. Last year’s measure failed by fewer than 300 votes.
The two sides offered a preview of where the battle lines will occur as the Nov. 7 election approaches during an interview with the Tri-City Herald editorial board.
The pro side includes Dave Retter, owner of Retter & Company Sotheby’s International Realty; Corey Pearson, manager of the Three Rivers Complex; Kris Watkins, president of Visit Tri-Cities; and Barb Johnson, manager of Columbia Center mall as well as chair of the public facilities district.
Advocates contend the convention center and Toyota Center need updating to attract meetings and event business. The investment will yield $66 million in economic activity, which will filter through the community in the form of jobs, visitor spending and tax dollars.
Retter called Proposition 17 a chance for Kennewick to demonstrate leadership.
Retter, whose company sponsors the temporary theater configuration that allows Toyota Center to host cultural performances, said it is in “appalling” shape. Locker rooms are inadequate for the many sports teams and entertainers who use the facility. Guests endure hard seats and cold conditions when they attend performances there.
“We’re better than that in the Tri-Cities,” he said.
The opposition committee includes Trumbo and McKay, as well as Jerry Martin, who is active in local Republican politics, and Vince Rundhaug, a local business owner who said raising the Kennewick sales tax will give local shoppers more incentive to take their business to sales tax-free Oregon.
Johnson emphasized she would never support the measure if she thought it would harm businesses in the mall.
But opponents argue the investment doesn’t make financial sense, and that government should confine itself to its core mission to protect public safety through police and fire service.
McKay conducted a “breakeven analysis” that concluded Kennewick’s taxable retail sales base isn’t large enough to support the new debt. McKay is running against retired Ben Franklin Transit executive Christy Watts for an open seat on the council.
McKay argued that the investment doesn’t break even unless Kennewick has at least $1.75 billion in taxable retail sales. Though taxable retail sales in Kennewick in 2016 topped $2 billion, he said that doesn’t diminish his larger point — sales tax collections rise in good times and fall in bad. The city could be left holding the bag if or when the economy turns south.
Trumbo said the higher taxable sales base doesn’t alter his opposition.
“I have confidence our argument is well founded. This is not the taxpayers’ responsibility,” he said.
Supporters pledged to do a better job of explaining The Link to the community this time. They say the 2016 campaign was waged largely on social media, and that many were ignorant of the request or confused. Many thought supporters wanted a new movie theater.
This time, they say they will spend up to $70,000 on educational materials that will be delivered across multiple media platforms as well as at informational open houses.
“When it failed, we heard from a lot of people that the education was not there,” Pearson said.