The Nisqually Tribe is considering building a convention center, hotel, concert venue and possibly a second casino in northeast Lacey.
And Lacey’s partnership with the Nisquallys on that project might derail a Thurston County Commission-proposed convention district that could ultimately serve to build a publicly funded convention center in the area.
Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder told The Olympian that tribal officials have expressed interest in what he called an “entertainment complex” for the Lacey Gateway property, a 200-plus-acre site that surrounds the outdoors store Cabela’s. The Nisquallys and Bellevue-based developer Mon Wig bought the property after a previous developer lost the land to the foreclosure process.
Ryder said Tuesday the entertainment complex could include a convention center, hotel, concert venue and a second, high-end casino that would draw customers from Seattle to Portland.
“We see the benefit of bringing thousands of people to the area,” Ryder said.
Nisqually Chief Executive John Simmons declined to comment at length.
“We are still in a review process,” he said in an email to The Olympian.
But that possibility might derail the idea the county commissioners have been floating.
“I can’t support something that would compete with a private-sector facility,” Ryder told Thurston County Manager Ramiro Chavez and Commissioner John Hutchings last week during a Lacey City Council work session.
The county is proposing putting a measure on the November ballot that would create a convention district and governing body that would submit a comprehensive plan for a convention center, including its finances, to the state, Chavez said.
The district could pursue a tax to fund and operate the center, such as a property tax levy of as much as 25 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation, he said.
Voters would not only have to approve the formation of the district, they would have to approve that tax, Chavez said.
The county is conducting a public hearing on the proposal July 25, but before that, the county’s cities have to decide whether to remain in the proposed district, which would be set up as a junior taxing district and governed by representatives from those jurisdictions. If they decide to opt out of the proposal, the cities have to do so by resolution.
Lacey City Council is set to vote on the matter Thursday. If they opt out, city residents wouldn’t be subject to a potential tax to fund the convention center. Olympia and Tumwater city councils are expected to vote on similar resolutions July 18.
County Commissioner Hutchings said his understanding is that the Nisqually project would remove the Gateway land from tax rolls.
Ryder said it was too early for that kind of speculation.
“We’re waiting to hear the entire proposal,” he said about the tribe’s plan.
County manager Chavez said Tuesday it was premature to say whether the council’s decision would derail the convention district proposal. He said the county will wait until after the public hearing before next steps are determined.
Potentially competing with a Nisqually development isn’t Lacey City Council’s only concern about the county proposal. They also took issue with the timing of the county’s proposal (why now? And why rush to put it before voters?) and the cost of operating a convention center.
“The vast majority (of convention centers) don’t even break even, let alone turn a profit,” Councilman Lenny Greenstein said. “The burden is on the taxpayer. What makes you think this is the time and location for a convention center that can pay for itself?”
“We don’t do it lightly,” said Hutchings about the county’s proposal, “but we don’t do it halfheartedly either. It’s the best opportunity, the best time, the conditions are right for a convention center. Are there risks? Yes. But there’s also a risk of doing nothing.”
Hutchings pointed to recent growth in the region to support his argument, including the Port of Olympia’s plans to bring a small cruise ship here.
Chavez said the county wants to “set the stage” to have a conversation about the proposal.
Greenstein said he supports the idea of a frank conversation about the proposal, but questioned why the county wants to put it on the ballot so soon.
“Why don’t we have the conversation first to see where we are?” Greenstein said.
Chavez said that without a regional approach, led by the county, he predicts the county and its jurisdictions won’t get anywhere.
“With all due respect, we will be here in 10 years having the same conversation,” he said, adding that the county’s cities would still be trying to figure out where to put a convention center.
No matter what, the proposal should be put on hold, Ryder said.
Is a convention center needed?
Still, Ryder said he generally supports convention centers for the indirect money generated by such developments. He acknowledged that the building itself might operate at a loss, but it’s the money conventioneers spend during their visits that help local businesses.
For example, the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey does not pay for itself through user fees, Lacey Finance Director Troy Woo said. User fees cover 45 percent of the RAC’s cost. The remaining expenses are covered by a Public Facilities District sales tax, lodging tax revenues, and the city’s general fund, he said.
Hoteliers in Lacey say the RAC is the city’s No. 1 draw for customers, Woo said.
“It’s hard to dispute that it isn’t an economic engine for Lacey,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced.
“The numbers are in, and they are clear: convention centers eat up public money and do not return anything to the public,” said Janet Jordan of Olympia in an email to the county.
Downtown Olympia business owner Anne Buck feels the same way.
“What a waste of money and time,” she said in an email to the county. “Don't you ever learn? Look at the statistics! No convention center!”
Hutchings acknowledged that the county’s proposal might spur a private group to build a convention center, but he won’t be patient about it.
“I’m not willing to sit and wait,” he said. “It’s time.”