LYNNWOOD – A strip-mall flanked intersection no longer is Lynnwood’s city center.
Dan Bates / The Herald
The Lynnwood Convention Center will begin welcoming crowds Saturday with a community festival.
That honor now goes to the $31 million Lynnwood Convention Center, which officially opens Saturday with a big community festival.
And that’s just the start of the new city center that officials believe will lead to a true downtown. Lynnwood officials have created a plan for an enhanced area around the convention center. The vision includes mid-rise buildings containing homes, offices and shops that would make central Lynnwood more pedestrian-friendly.
“Everyone is very excited about what this means for the future of Lynnwood,” said Grant Dull, director for the Lynnwood Public Facilities District, which built the convention center.
The 55,000-square-foot building will carve its own niche in the meeting-space market, officials say. It’s expected to bring in more than 40,000 people a year to the city, along with up to $13 million in new business.
While local hoteliers say they’ll have to compete with the convention center, they think there’s room in the market for all.
The Quality Inn on 128th Street near I-5 has 16,000-square feet of meeting space, compared with 34,000 for the Lynnwood center. The hotel draws sports and seminar groups, church groups, Microsoft trade shows and science-fiction conventions, general manager Bob Keller said.
“I think we’re going to be able to continue to satisfy that market,” he said.
Other venues managed by public facility districts nearby are the Everett Events Center, Edmonds’ planned remodeling of a historic former school auditorium into a 750-seat performing arts center, and Paine Field’s under-construction Future of Flight museum.
Lynnwood officials welcome the projects; they give convention-goers more things to do, Dull said.
“I think the four projects complement each other,” he said.
Other carrots to entice people to the Lynnwood center include free parking in the adjacent mini-mall lot and in-house food preparation. Those features eliminate hidden costs for customers, and the kitchen is expected to turn a profit, officials said.
Thirty-nine local and regional groups have reserved space at the center, with bookings running into December. The pace is about 70 percent of what will be needed to reach the center’s revenue goal of $1.3 million for the year, Dull said. At this stage, that is considered good, since most convention space is booked a year to 18 months in advance, officials said.
Having everything in one place – and having a “green room” for dignitaries – was a big draw for WorkSource of Snohomish County, marketing director William Bell said. The employment education firm will have national business expert Tom Peters and Gov. Christine Gregoire speak at its conference at the Convention Center on May 12.
The statewide Washington Chess Federation has booked its tournament for Memorial Day weekend.
“Good location, new facility, right size,” said federation vice president David Hendricks of Sammamish.
Officials expect the center’s income from rental and food-and-beverage service to cover operating costs. The center also receives money from the adjacent strip mall, which the public facilities district bought as part of the project. In 2004, the mall brought in $496,000, Dull said.
With 13 acres, officials say if money becomes available, they could expand the convention center or build a performing arts center.
It’s been a long haul
South county civic boosters have wanted to build an arts venue or convention center that could serve as a community focal point since the 1980s. But three ballot measures failed, the first in 1986.
The break that boosters were looking for came in 1999, when state legislators passed a law that allows local jurisdictions to retain a portion of sales taxes that would otherwise go to the state. The money can be used for regional projects such as performing arts, convention or cultural centers. Local jurisdictions put up matching funds.
Lynnwood was the first to take advantage of the law. Since then, 19 other public facilities districts have formed around the state, including the three in Snohomish County. The Lynnwood City Council appointed a five-member board of directors, mostly of businesspeople, headed by developer Mike Echelbarger.
“The city said, ‘Go get what you can out of the PFD legislation and don’t come back to us for any more,” Echelbarger said.
The facilities district board worked with Lynnwood and Snohomish County officials on matching funds – a reallocation of hotel-motel taxes. A flat amount of Lynnwood’s hotel-motel tax, $338,000 per year, and a third of the county lodging tax will be allocated to the project until 2034 or until the bonds are paid off. The portion of Lynnwood’s lodging tax going to the facilities district currently amounts to about 90 percent.
Lynnwood generates more than a third of the county lodging taxes, officials say. The city lodging tax – which must be spent on tourism promotion – had built up $1 million in its fund without a project to spend it on, Echelbarger said.
District board members first considered a 6,000-seat performing arts center. The estimated cost of more than $50 million was $20 million more than it could afford, Echelbarger said.
A convention center was the next alternative. A preliminary look indicated that Lynnwood’s location – halfway between Seattle and Everett, straddling I-5 and near the interchange with I-405 – would work in its favor. The Convention Center is one block from I-5, at 3711 196th St. SW.
“All of the reasons that make Lynnwood a commercial success will work in the same way to make a convention center a success,” Echelbarger said.
Columbia Hospitality of Seattle, which operates six conference centers in the Seattle area, checked with meeting planners for up to 50 organizations in Seattle and Snohomish County.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm for the project,” said Shelley Tomberg, company vice president.
What if it fails?
If the convention center should fall flat, the city would have to pay off the bonds. But nobody expects that to happen, Echelbarger said.
PFD officials say the center’s size is a perfect match for the market. It’s smaller than venues in Seattle and larger than space at local hotels. It serves a function different from the Everett Events Center, which has meeting space but is primarily an arena.
The Lynnwood center was designed to accommodate large meetings and smaller sub-groups, Dull said. It has 11 meeting rooms, including expansive rooms that can be divided, and small rooms as well.
In 2003, the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, released a study that said nationwide convention attendance had dropped dramatically since the late 1990s. Meanwhile, spending on new convention facilities had skyrocketed, leaving the market unable to support the glut of meeting space, the study concluded.
Dull said the study focused on large trade shows, which are not Lynnwood’s target clients. While larger venues are in trouble, the trend is toward smaller conferences, where there is “huge growth,” he said.
The study focused on the period characterized by the poor economic climate leading up to and following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dull said.
“Our industry has largely recovered from that,” he said.
Whatever happens financially with the center, just having it is a source of pride among many in town.
“It’s sort of a nice focal point,” said C.C. Leonard, a member of the city’s Arts Commission. “It’s a beautiful building. I think it’s a nice icon for our community.”
Reporter Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439 or email@example.com