Herald recommends yes vote on tax for convention center -- will bring tourism dollars

The Three Rivers Convention Center is not quite a decade old, but it already is in need of expansion.

The Kennewick Public Facilities District will ask voters to approve a sales tax increase of 1/10 of 1 percent to pay for construction of a 50,000-square-foot exhibit hall and other improvements that would allow the center to accommodate larger convention groups and trade shows.

Tourism officials say other cities are benefiting from our lack of convention space. Organizers for more than two dozen annual events who inquired about the convention center have opted for other cities because of the lack of rentable space at the Kennewick site.

That means a loss of nearly 50,000 visitors and an estimated $18 million in spending that would have come with them, according to the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau.

While those spending figures seem to be a little puffy, there's no doubt conventions mean big business to Tri-City hotels, restaurants, retailers and tourism destinations.

More than one million people have visited the Three Rivers Convention Center since it opened. And while some of us who live in the community contribute to that attendance figure and have been to events there many times, there are many other locals who have never set foot in the facility. Some don't even know where to find it. And therein lies part of the problem for public facilities district and the measure's backers: education.

Getting voters to approve a tax increase of any kind is a challenge in most communities. Nobody wants to pay more, especially for something they might not ever use. The greater good of the community has to be taken into account, just like the childless citizens who pay school taxes or those who live in a public hospital district but opt to get their health care needs met elsewhere. It costs money to maintain and improve a great community.

Altruism is a necessary factor. And economic development is a factor vital to our community's health and longevity. Tourism is one of the major components that most easily can be developed. We have many of the pieces already in place. Wine, water and good weather make this a great place to visit, whether it's for a weekend getaway or a convention with some excursions offered as part of the package. Golf, hiking trails and the natural beauty of the area help round out the experience.

It's easy to throw around numbers showing the effect of tourism on our community. Proponents of the project say the convention center contributes more than $89 million in economic activity and has supplied more than 1,100 jobs since its inception. In addition to activities for visitors, the convention center is also home to many local events, though conventions are its top priority.

The Three Rivers Convention Center already is a first-rate facility. But it is lacking in scale for many groups that would want to make the Tri-Cities a destination for annual events. And some existing clients of the facility expect to soon outgrow the current space. That may mean they will be searching for a new home. And when it comes to the convention business, competition is fierce. Spokane voters approved an expanded convention center, and other communities are working to entice groups to locate events in their cities.

We must remain competitive in this market. Using the "if we build it, they will come" mentality is almost a sure bet when it comes to an expanded convention center. We have the convention planners' attention, we just need a few more elements to put us at the top of the list for convention destinations.

Besides space, another component that was missing from some groups' checklists for potential convention sites was the lack of an attached hotel. A savvy Tri-City businessman has stepped in to fill that need, with construction set to begin on a five-story, $7 million hotel. Convention business already is being booked on the speculation of that hotel's completion.

Tax increases are not an easy thing to self-impose. But a sales tax increase really levels the playing field. It's not a property tax. It's an increase on the sales tax for items purchased in Kennewick. That means if a Richland residents shops at the mall, they'll pay too. As will all those out of town visitors. The burden is not borne solely by Kennewick residents, but many of the benefits will be felt the most in Kennewick.

The Herald editorial board recommends voters approve a sales tax increase of 1/10 of 1 percent to expand the Three Rivers Convention Center.