Does Thurston County need a convention district?

It feels like we just had this talk. But it was actually ten years ago.

Despite mentioning the topic rarely – if ever—during their campaigns last year, Thurston County commissioners have started the process for building a convention center.

The weirdest part of their action is that they’re choosing an archaic mechanism: an old law allowing the creation of convention districts rather than the more recent Public Facilities District law (PFD).  The law creating Public Facilities Districts was passed in 1988 (and expanded to cities in 1999), while  convention districts were created in 1982 and never seemed to get off the ground.
Instead of pursuing a Public Facilities District (of which we already have one), the commissioners are initiating a process under the Cultural Arts, Stadium and Convention District law.  The primary difference between the older convention district and the newer Public Facility Districts is that the convention districts were much more democratic. Convention districts require a series of elections, each of which makes an opportunity for the process to break down. Therefore, it is much easier for the public to oppose funding.  Public Facility Districts need only the support of a combination of willing city and county legislative boards.  While the public can engage with those elected boards, it isn’t like they have a direct say in an election.
Today, there are at least 25 Public Facility Districts operating across Washington State and not a single convention district. In fact, in the late 1980s Snohomish County struggled for years to use a convention district to build a convention center in Lynnwood. Finally in the late 90s, as city-based PFDs were coming on line, the Lynnwood convention district made one last try and failed.
From the Seattle Times in 1998: “For the third time since 1986, voters this week squelched a district proposal to build some combination of a performing-arts theater and convention hall. But this defeat was the most crushing, with 75 percent of nearly 79,500 voters saying ‘no’.”

The leading theory behind the loss: Voters didn’t want property taxes to pay for a project that would benefit private businesses—especially Lynnwood hotels, restaurants and pubs. One study found the project would directly pump $9.1 million per year into the local economy; with indirect benefits, that figure would jump to $16.2 million.

The next year, the legislature gave Snohomish County the ability to quickly kill their failed convention district, but also the tools to start up a more nimble and less democratic Public Facilities District.
Using the PFD model that doesn’t actually have to go to the voters for funding, Lynnwood was later able to build their convention center.
From the Seattle Times in 2005:

“The $34 million Lynnwood Convention Center opened May 1 with lofty expectations of drawing thousands of people to the city’s restaurants, hotels and shops.

“The convention center’s success was immediate. Gross revenue through November was $650,000, 15 percent more than anticipated. In its first seven months, the center hosted 208 events, said Grant Dull, the executive director of the Lynnwood Public Facilities District.”

It’s not yet known how much of that success has trickled down to the city and local businesses, but they are expected to reap $13 million in annual economic benefits by the center’s third year.

So, why is Thurston County choosing a less likely to succeed method to build a public facility?
One reason is obvious. We already have an operating Public Facilities District in Thurston County. It is run by the three cities and Thurston County and funds, at least in part, the Hands on Children’s Museum and the Regional Athletic Center. With that route taken up, the only taxing district option to build a convention center is the old convention district process.

Which also sort of begs the question, when the local Public Facilities District started up, why didn’t they build a convention center? Turns out it was a pretty unpopular idea. Even in the less democratic process, people in Olympia engaged and turned out to vote for candidates that did not support spending public money on a convention center downtown.
Makes you think it would be hard for something like that to actually survive a public vote.

Emmett O’Connell lives in Olympia and blogs about the region at olympiatime.com

For more information: Cultural Arts, Stadium and Convention Districts RCW Title 67.38 – Public Facilities Districts RCW Title 36.100. Capital Area Regional PFD – lacey.wa.us – boards-commissions. 

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