Friday, December 02, 2011

We never built the Capital Area Arts and Conference Center

I'm actually surprised by how similar Wenatchee and Olympia are. Wenatchee is smaller than Olympia (31k to 46k), but in metro area sizes, they're about the same (+100k).

There is one significant difference. When Olympia decided against a supposed costly plan for a conference center back in 2003/04, Wenatchee went ahead with their events center, which now can't pay for itself.

The situation going on now in Wenatchee is surprisingly similar to the stories of future horror and woe from 2003 when Olympia (and the rest of the area) was considering what to do with our very own Public Facilities District. Back then, Olympia was pushing for a "Capital Area Arts and Conference Center," which eventually became the center point of that year's city elections.

I remember making phone calls for a couple of city council candidates that fall. Most people would get off the phone with me as soon as they found out the candidates' stand on the conference center.

Phyllis Booth from 2003:
What's wrong with a conference/arts center? Doesn't Olympia need meeting space? Won't the conference/arts center bring in needed business downtown and thus more tax revenue? Yes and no. As with any project, you have to look at the costs versus the benefits. Three expensive studies done in 1998, 2000, and 2003 by the City of the Olympia concluded a conference center will be a net loss or in my words "money pit." Furthermore, Richard Cushing, Olympia City manager, has written that the city's revenues are not keeping pace with the city's growth. He states that in order for the City to have a conference center that they have to determine what is a priority and to make financial decisions based on that priority. City officials have indicated that the conference/arts center will be paid for by funds that are now funding Procession of the Species, the Children's Museum, the Bigelow House, the Olympia Film society and other worthy non-profits.
If Olympia had gone forward with a conference center in 2003, would we now be asking for a Wenatchee-like bailout (setting up a metonymic showdown)?

One of my favorite episodes from that year's campaign was the opponents of the center standing in the back of the room during a day-time city council debate holding signs. On the signs were number like 90 or 85, indicating the percentage of each candidate's neighbors that were against the convention center.

The Capitol Area did eventually build some projects with our public facility district, but it was the less audacious Regional Athletic Center and the Hands On Children Museum.


Thad Curtz said...

I will be pleasantly surprised if the HandsOn Childrens' Museum turns out to be able to pay for itself in its audacious new version.

Matthew Green said...

I saw the story about Wenatchee, and was thinking exactly the same thing. By not building a conference center, Olympia avoided a minimum of $1 million per year in tax subsidy to cover the losses (and that was the proponents' optimistic projection).