History, politics, people of Oly WA

Does Thurston County need a convention district? And why like this?

It feels like we just had this talk. But it was actually ten years ago.
Despite being mentioned by probably nearly no one (or at least not anyone I remember hearing) during last year’s campaign, the Thurston County commission has started the slow process of building a convention center.

The weirdest part of the proposal to start a process that might lead to a convention center is that they’re choosing to use an archaic mechanism.

Instead of using the Public Facilities District route (of which we already have one), the commissioners are proposing to to a Cultural Arts, Stadium and Convention District. While the law creating public facility districts was passed in 1988 (and expanded to cities in 1999), convention districts were created in 1982 and never seemed to get off the ground.

The primary difference between the older convention district and the newer public facility districts is that the convention districts were much more democratic, and therefore, much easier to oppose funding. Convention districts require a series of elections before they can break down, while public facility districts are created by a combination of willing city and county legislative boards.

While the public can engage with those elected boards, it isn’t like they have a direct say in an election.

Today, there are at least 25 operating public facility districts operating across Washington State and not a single convention districts. In fact, in the late 80s Snohomish County struggled for years to use a convention district to build a convention center in Lynnwood. Finally in the late 90s, as city-based PFDs were coming on line, the Lynnwood convention district made one last try and failed.

From the Seattle Times in 1998:

For the third time since 1986, voters this week squelched a district proposal to build some combination of a performing-arts theater and convention hall. But this defeat was the most crushing, with 75 percent of nearly 79,500 voters saying “no.” 

The leading theory behind the loss: Voters didn’t want property taxes to pay for a project that would benefit private businesses – especially Lynnwood hotels, restaurants and pubs. One study found the project would directly pump $9.1 million per year into the local economy; with indirect benefits, that figure would jump to $16.2 million. 

The next year, the legislature gave Snohomish County the ability to quickly kill their failed convention district, but also the tools to start up a more nimble and less democratic public facilities district.

Using the public facility district model that doesn’t actually have to go to the voters for funding, Lynnwood was later able to build their convention center.

From the Seattle Times in 2005:

The $34 million Lynnwood Convention Center opened May 1 with lofty expectations of drawing thousands of people to the city’s restaurants, hotels and shops. 

The convention center’s success was immediate. Gross revenue through November was $650,000, 15 percent more than anticipated. In its first seven months, the center hosted 208 events, said Grant Dull, the executive director of the Lynnwood Public Facilities District. 

It’s not yet known how much of that success has trickled down to the city and local businesses, but they are expected to reap $13 million in annual economic benefits by the center’s third year.

So, why is Thurston County choosing a less likely to succeed method to build a public facility?

One reason is obvious, we already have an operating public facilities district in Thurston County. It is run by the three cities and Thurston County and funds, at least in part, the Hands on Children’s Museum and the Regional Athletic Center. With that route taken up, the only taxing district option to build a convention center is the old convention district.

Which also sort of begs the question, when the local Public Facilities District started up, why didn’t they build a convention center? Turns out it was a pretty unpopular idea. Even in the less democratic process, people in Olympia engaged and turned out to vote for candidates that did not support spending public money on a convention center downtown.

Makes you think it would be hard for something like that to actually survive a public vote.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for this very informative article. I'm against a new convention center in Olympia, or anywhere in the South Sound, as I'm told they generally lose money and there are better uses for our limited downtown space. Another public enterprise that allegedly loses money is the Port of Olympia's Industrial Marine District. I would very much like to see the Port convert this district to "pleasure boating;" i.e., end the commercial cargo business and move the Olympia Yacht Club to the space vacated by commercial Port activities, while the responsible parties remove the Capitol Lake dam and restore the estuary. The entire Port Peninsula waterfront could then be dedicated to boating, boatworks, small waterfront-related businesses, and completion of the "Big W" trail, which would generate far more, albeit indirect, economic activity by making downtown an even more attractive destination. We are the state Capitol, after all, and I see part of our identity as a city as reflecting the best attributes of the area for the enjoyment and edification of visitors and residents alike. The Port has done an excellent job with development of the Swantown Marina, and the rest of the waterfront could have the same "look and feel."

    The ONLY way a "convention center" would be acceptable to me is if it replaced the marine district. A waterfront hotel with meeting rooms might lose the same amount of money, but would at least serve a useful purpose some of the time. The views would be superlative. I'd stay away from the name "convention center," and scale it to smaller conferences and meetings, weddings and family reunions – more of a small tasteful resort, in fact, than a convention center. Visiting boaters have also expressed to me their desire for more things to do downtown. This would bring people and activity to the Peninsula without the downside. Thoughts?

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