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Originally published Saturday, September 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Meydenbauer Center back on track after hard times

The dot-com bust and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks weighed heavily on the world of commerce, and Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center was no exception...

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

The dot-com bust and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks weighed heavily on the world of commerce, and Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center was no exception.

But after five years of losses, the downtown convention center is bouncing back — on track for its most profitable year ever and hosting everything from beauty-supply shows to the Seattle Opera.

The Bellevue City Council this week approved a $1.9 million revamp that will make the main exhibit hall more inviting.

"The overall performance is just about as spectacular as I could hope it would be," said Bob Wallace, a member of the Bellevue Convention Center Authority, the city-controlled public agency that runs the center.

The center lost more than $3 million from 2002-04 but nearly broke even last year and is projected to make about $1.4 million this year. Center officials say the improving regional economy, downtown Bellevue's building boom and an aggressive marketing campaign for the center's theater has helped bring audiences back.

Under the project approved this week, the 36,000-square-foot exhibit hall will be transformed from a utilitarian space — exposed rafters, white walls, black carpet — to a warmer gathering spot with a metal ceiling treatment, better acoustics and a more appealing color scheme.

The project, set to be completed next spring, will attract trade shows and corporate gatherings that may have been turned off by a spartan room or were forced to bring in their own decorations, center officials said.

With competition from new or upgraded convention centers such as those in Tacoma and Spokane, it's more important than ever to offer new things, Wallace said.

"We couldn't just rely on our great location and good client base forever," he said.

Still, Meydenbauer has one ever-looming goal. The city has wanted to expand the center since it opened in 1993, and officials say they are already losing clients who are growing too big for the space.

Penny Arcade, a video-game convention that attracted about 19,000 people last month, will leave Meydenbauer next year for the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. Microsoft also doesn't host large gatherings in Bellevue anymore.

Despite the need, expansion deals with private developers have fallen through. Most recently, in 2004, Schnitzer Northwest pulled out of a deal to build a headquarters hotel at the center because the city would not devote enough money to the project. Schnitzer instead broke ground this summer on The Bravern mixed-use development next door.

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Stacy Graven, Meydenbauer's longtime executive director, said an expansion is "long overdue" and new hotels expected in town could bring in enough lodging-tax revenue to finish the project by 2010.

The city owns a lot just to the north that could double the size of Meydenbauer. If a headquarters hotel is not attached to the project, it could be built separately on property to the south or east, Wallace said.

Meydenbauer could continue to operate well without an expansion, center officials said, but some large, lucrative conventions will increasingly look elsewhere.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567

or abach@seattletimes.com

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