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The biggest public works project Seattle won't vote on

A worker pulls a wagon past a "his and hers" garden theme set at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, in Seattle.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
A worker pulls a wagon at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show in 2013, in Seattle. The convention center has plans to expand yet again.

Is Seattle's convention center really running out of space?

The Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle wants to expand using nearly $2 billion in hotel taxes. The plan is to build on top of land currently hosting the Convention Place Station Metro bus terminal, across from the Paramount Theatre. 

Some days, the Washington State Convention Center in downtown Seattle buzzes with life. Like a recent Microsoft conference with a live band and a whole lot of jargon. But many days, few voices echo in the ample halls of the convention center, which resembles a concrete citadel.

Also: If Airbnbs get taxed, should Seattle’s Convention Center get the money?

Those lulls are why some say Seattle needs another convention center building with more space. Sound confusing? Here’s the rationale:

When a big convention comes, there are a number of people who come to Seattle and fill hotels and restaurants, explains developer Matt Griffin, whose company Pine Street Group manages the proposed expansion.

After the event, it takes a day to dismantle the convention and two or three days to set up for the next one.

“During that time period, there aren't the people and the activity on the streets and the hotels in the restaurants in Seattle,” Griffin said.  

[asset-images[{"caption": "", "fid": "136730", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201706/Viz-ConventionCenter.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]So, having one more facility would compensate—two facilities hosting events that are “off by half a wavelength” would allow one event to get in full swing as the other was setting up or tearing down, Griffin said, allowing more consistent demand for downtown hospitality and retail and allowing more conferences to come to Seattle.

Critics say they’ve heard that argument before. Standing on 8th Avenue between Pike Street and Pine Street, local architect and Washington State Convention Center expansion critic, David Dahl, points out the scenery—a dark, noisy street under a vaulted ceiling, like a tunnel.

The Convention Center has expanded twice before, including one project that built a conference center on top of this covered street in 2010. Below it, 8th Avenue was touted as a great, new pedestrian area, Dahl said.

“In reality it’s kind of a pass through throw-away space that no one’s really using. It’s just kind of a leftover,” Dahl said.

Meanwhile, more space didn’t lead to more convention goers, he said.

And Seattle’s other needs are never too far away. Down the street are homeless tents and men with cardboard signs. Around the corner, a woman shot up in a door well.

To Dahl, that’s tragic.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The Washington State Convention Center, view from the street in 2010.", "fid": "136725", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/4440895411_9f3bd1a04b_o.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Flickr photo/Andrew Taylor (CC BY 2.0)"}]]“To see a project like the convention center, where there’s a huge, huge amount of cash available to them for a project that is essentially designed to benefit people who don’t even live in our city.”

Washington State Convention Center board chairman Frank Finneran disagrees.

“The Convention Center benefits the community as a consequence of the people who don’t live in our community coming here and spending money and leaving it here,” he said.

Finneran has been on the board of center since the facility’s inception in 1988. In fact, he has had so much involvement in the convention center, there’s a plaque with his face on it in the lobby. Finneran’s day job is a hotel industry consultant, which, he says, is not a conflict of interest.

Before the interview, I checked the center’s attendance numbers by looking at its own annual reports over twenty years. It turns out attendance hasn’t gone up. It hovers around the same point each year—about 400,000 people.

The space has more than doubled in size, from 102,000 square feet of exhibition space in 1988 to 205,700 square feet of exhibition space in 2001 and a 71,000 square foot Conference Center in 2010, bringing it to a total size of 414,722 square feet of meeting and exhibit space.

I showed Finneran those numbers. He objected to the “protracted look” at the data.

“The methods and techniques for arriving at these numbers has changed about four times over that period of time,” Finneran said.

But the convention center doesn’t have data it finds more accurate.  

“The only thing I can tell you is that the building is full right now,” Finneran said.

Event bookers shared their calendars with me going back to 2012. I found on average, 40 percent of the days don’t have big conventions going on, especially during big swaths in the winter. Instead, smaller luncheons and auctions use the facility those days, as well as big conventions setting up and tearing down. Vacancy is part of the business, Finneran said.

“It doesn’t work if you don’t have the vacant space. If you can’t set the meeting up, you can’t conduct it,” he said.

[asset-images[{"caption": "The convention center lobby on a slow day. ", "fid": "136726", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201706/empty_lobby2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Anna Boiko-Weyrauch for KUOW"}]]The new building that’s planned for up the street will be the same way. But it will be even bigger: The exhibition hall is big enough for two and a half football fields—and mostly off limits to the public. Most of the time, all but the lobby will be closed to the public.

Another common argument in favor of expanding the convention center is the number of events the facility has to turn away because of lack of space or date availability.

“In the last five years the convention center has actually turned away more business than it’s booked,” Griffin said.

There's more to the story than lack of space, according to an analysis of data on lost and waived business obtained from Visit Seattle, the city’s tourism marketing organization and booker of large conventions.

Reasons for not booking included: an organization’s internal decision-making, insufficient local membership and unfavorable hotel rates.

For example, the 2017 annual convention of the American Culinary Federation was identified as a business prospect in Visit Seattle data, but will not come to Seattle this summer.

“The event does not require a convention center, so we did not look at the Washington State Convention Center,” according to the federation’s director of marketing and communications, Karen Mathis.

Same goes for the 2020 annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

“We didn't book in Seattle for 2020 as we needed to be on the East Coast for that meeting,” according to executive director Ann Benow. “We don't use convention centers for our meeting, as we find it best to keep everything in one hotel.”

More space at the convention center would not influence the siting of their annual meetings, she said.

Lack of date availability comprised 33 percent or 490 events that did not book, according to the KUOW analysis. Inadequate convention center meeting facilities comprised 10 percent or 149 events.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation was interested in booking space in Seattle for its 2015 annual convention, but ultimately decided not to.
"The space was not expansive enough to accommodate our annual medical conference needs,” according to Cynthia Adams, Senior Director of Medical Meetings of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. “We're excited about the planned development and the additional space it will offer as we consider future conference sites."

The crux of the expansion is capturing all the business that wants to come to Seattle, but cannot book here, Finneran said.

“We could build a building twice as big as we're building and fill it up these people that are turning away but we're not,” he said. “We're proposing a building that makes some sense from our point of view fits in with the community and the site availability.”

But it won’t be cheap. The next story in this series will explore one method the center expects to pay for the $1.7 billion expansion.