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Monday, June 28, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kate Riley / Times staff columnist
Port should toss a line to Meydenbauer Center

By Kate Riley
Seattle Times editorial columnist

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The Port of Seattle? In Bellevue?

Some folks can't seem to get their heads around the idea that the state's oldest port is studying a joint venture with Bellevue at the Meydenbauer Center. Even more perplexing apparently is that there's no water, salt or fresh, near the convention center just off Interstate 405 — let alone a place to store cargo.

While the Port of Seattle was formed to bring some controls and infrastructure to the rough-and-tumble waterfront, the chief thing it — and Washington's other 75 port districts — have in common is not a seaport or an airport, but a legal mandate to spur economic development.

No water necessary.

The city of Bellevue has asked the Port to help pay for an expansion of the 10-year-old convention center, and Port officials are intrigued with the possibility of expanding its World Trade Center Seattle to East King County, where it has taxpayers and clients but no investment. A feasibility study on the joint venture is expected as early as this week.

Criticism of the deal seems to fall into two categories — that the Port would be throwing money away in the "troubled" Meydenbauer Center, which it turns out isn't so troubled after all (more about that later) and that investing in a convention center is too, um, unconventional.

Examples of non-marine port operations are numerous: The Port of Pend Oreille, in Washington's Northeast corner, formed in 1978 when the Milwaukee Railroad abandoned a critical 61-mile rail line to a paper mill and cement company. On the Columbia River's elbow, the Port of Pasco was the lead agency that developed the Pasco Processing Center. The $22 million in public investment attracted a food-processing industry with $100 million in private investment.

This month, the Port of Douglas County worked with the state and other agencies to open a temporary camp at its airport for farmworkers during the Wenatchee Valley's short but critical cherry harvest.

Farmworker housing and port districts? Sure. It's about keeping the economy healthy, something no one should dismiss as our region struggles out of recession.

"I look at this as being infrastructure, like roads," said Pat Haley, Port of Douglas County executive director. "If we had another $30 million industry that needed better roads, you can bet we'd put in better roads. The port's job is to support commerce. Wherever commerce is, the ports are."

The Legislature has given port districts more authority and tools to spur economic development than other municipal governments. They can operate airports, railroads, industrial development enterprises and even promote tourism.

Enter Bellevue's Meydenbauer Center. Executive director Stacy Graven estimates the 10-year-old convention center has contributed about $195 million to the region's economy with convention-goers renting hotel rooms, eating in restaurants and shopping in stores.

Bellevue city officials want to double the size of the center to about 254,000 square feet to capture larger conventions the center must now turn away. The expansion is expected to generate another $52.3 million in spending, including about $2.5 million in tax revenues.

To make it happen, city officials asked the Port of Seattle to become a partner in the expansion and pay $25 million of the $55 million cost. Port officials are considering an extension of its World Trade Center Seattle to serve the growing number of internationally connected businesses on the Eastside. About 80 percent of Washington's software technology companies — or 679 — are based in Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland, Renton, Issaquah and Sammamish, according to the Washington Software Alliance.

Detractors of the project are disingenuously dismissive of Meydenbauer's finances. Like most convention centers, the Meydenbauer was intended to be a tax-supported public service — with one revenue stream coming from the hotel-motel tax and the other coming from meeting and convention fees. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the hospitality industry (read: hotels and motels) took major hits and, consequently, so did Meydenbauer's tax-revenue stream. The center lost about $1.9 million in the past two years and drew on its reserves to cover operations. Graven says revenues have recovered and the center expects to pay back reserves by 2005.

Port commissioners should consider the feasibility study carefully to make sure their district's taxpayers would get a good return before they embrace the partnership. But they would be remiss if they didn't consider seriously the deal and its potential for economic development.

Port districts are for much more than managing waterfronts and landing airplanes.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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