LACEY - The City Council heard a presentation Thursday as it weighs whether to authorize a study on the feasibility of developing a convention or conference center.
At the request of Councilman Andy Ryder, City Manager Greg Cuoio scheduled the presentation by John Christison, president of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle, to provide more information and answer questions at a council work session Thursday night.
Council members reserved discussion about moving forward with the idea until a future meeting.
Ryder said he began researching the issue shortly after his election in November.
“I think the most important thing to do is look at how we can create jobs and how to create economic development,” Ryder said before the meeting. “There is a substantial need for a convention center in our area. There has been for over 30 years.”
He said he has talked to council members of neighboring cities, state lawmakers and port commissioners. He said he received generally positive response.
“I spread the word around,” he said. “I didn’t want this to be a surprise to anyone.”
A convention center has dedicated space for exhibit booths; a conference center does not.
Ryder has identified two potential sites for the center in Hawks Prairie: the proposed Lacey Gateway Town Center and land owned by the Nisqually Indian Tribe just east of the proposed mixed-use center. He said it’s likely the city would need to join with a private sector partner if it decided to move forward.
Ryder said he has not yet approached the tribe or Tri Vo, the managing member of the limited-liability company that owns the Gateway property. Foreclosure proceedings have begun on the Gateway property.
While these properties are in Lacey, Ryder said he recognizes that any center would be for the benefit of the region.
In his remarks, Christison said convention centers are business investments and that city leaders need to look carefully at how the building fits into their vision for the community.
He advised that the city should conduct a feasibility study as a first step to better determine how much it would cost, how it would be operated and how it would be financed.
He said critical components of a convention center are having enough hotel rooms to support a convention, easy transportation access and a destination appeal.
“It doesn’t have to be a five-star hotel,” he said. “What you need is a good quality full-service hotel.”
The city has approved plans for a 110-room hotel near the Gateway property.
Christison said the Great Wolf Lodge in South Thurston County isn’t a competitor because its conference amenities are secondary to its hotel and indoor water park. Tacoma has a convention center.
The last serious effort to build a large meeting center in the area died more than six years ago. The City Council killed the project in January 2004 for several reasons, including rising cost projections, pending litigation and parking issues.
The idea has been bandied about since then, although no firm proposals have emerged.
Tumwater City Councilwoman Judi Hoefling, the council’s representative for the area Visitor and Convention Bureau, sees potential for the former Olympia brewery property as the site of a convention center. Ryder talked to her as he was making his rounds. She said she appreciated Ryder’s enthusiasm and willingness to bring such a project forward but added there needs to be a community conversation about it.
Hoefling has asked that a discussion about a convention center be placed on a future Tumwater City Council meeting agenda.
A hotel and small conference center have been mentioned as possible tenants in the Port of Olympia’s East Bay redevelopment project in downtown Olympia.
“Whether that evolves into something more … I don’t know,” port commissioner Bill McGregor said. “That’s always been one of the concepts.”