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Originally published May 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 1, 2009 at 9:20 AM

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State convention center expansion put on hold

A proposed $766 million expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center is on hold for now, after the Legislature balked at giving it a quick green light.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A proposed $766 million expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center (WSCTC) is on hold for now, after the Legislature balked at giving it a quick green light.

Backers of the expansion had asked for $15 million in local hotel taxes to move ahead with the design and to secure an option on the land for the downtown Seattle project.

Instead, lawmakers offered $10 million, with strings attached. The Legislature's capital budget makes the money available next July only if the WSCTC conducts studies on the feasibility and financing of the project and reports back by the end of the year.

Lawmakers also demanded that the state-owned WSCTC work with business and union leaders to write up a plan on how the expansion would create "full-time, stable, living-wage jobs" and "positive labor relations."

Meanwhile, lawmakers drained $22 million from the convention center's local hotel-tax account to balance the state budget — on top of the $65 million they diverted last year for the same purpose.

Irritated by the Legislature's actions, the convention-center board met Thursday and decided to ask Gov. Chris Gregoire to veto the $10 million appropriation along with the study requirements, according to WSCTC President John Christison.

Christison said the convention center already has produced one feasibility study and it didn't make sense "to be forced into doing these studies with no assurance that we are going to be able to move forward."

The convention center paid $90,000 for a feasibility report released in February, which said the expansion would be "heavily used." The report by San Francisco-based Economics Research Associates, predicted the new building would bring 30 new national conventions and 125,000 new visitors a year to downtown Seattle by 2017.

But state Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, vice chairman of the Senate Ways & Means Committee, said lawmakers were skeptical.

"Too often with these studies, the outcome is dictated by who pays for the study," he said. "What we're trying to do is come in with no bias and say let's look at the real numbers."

The expansion proposal called for doubling the exhibit space at the WSCTC with a stand-alone new building atop King County Metro's Convention Place Station. The project wouldn't require new taxes. It would be paid for out of the existing 7 percent tax on Seattle hotels (2.8 percent in the rest of King County.)

Seattle is far from alone in wanting a bigger convention center. Cities around the country are planning additions to gain an edge in the increasingly competitive market.

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The amount of total convention space nationwide has nearly doubled since 1989. That glut of space has left some large centers struggling to fill its halls, even before the recession began to take its toll.

At WSCTC, the number of out-of-state visitors drawn to national conventions dropped to 130,000 last year, down from 180,000 in 2007, and the lowest number since 2002. Total attendance at the center has remained basically flat compared with the years just before the last major expansion in 2001.

Nevertheless, the expansion has been enthusiastically backed by Seattle business leaders, politicians and labor groups. Backers point out that even with the expansion, Seattle's convention center would remain relatively modest in size.

The Legislature's action disappointed WSCTC supporters.

"It is regrettable. We hope that this is just a short delay," said George Duff, interim president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who helped push for the original convention-center construction in the 1980s.

Christison said the expansion proposal will be back.

"We are disappointed and a little frustrated, but we are going to keep moving forward. We think it is a project worth doing," he said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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