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Originally published Friday, February 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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$766 million trade-center expansion pushed

Washington state convention-center boosters are pushing legislation to authorize a $766 million expansion in downtown Seattle, despite a steep drop in out-of-state convention attendees.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Backers of the state convention center are pushing legislation to authorize a $766 million expansion of the state convention center in downtown Seattle, despite a steep drop in out-of-state convention attendees.

State Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, introduced a bill Thursday to pay for the project out of an existing 7 percent tax on hotel rooms in Seattle (2.8 percent in the rest of King County.)

The proposed expansion, a stand-alone building on the site of Metro King County's Convention Place Station, would double the total exhibit space at the state-owned Washington State Convention & Trade Center.

Supporters say it would allow Seattle to attract more lucrative national conventions now going to other cities.

"The result would be more business and more people coming to the state," said Murray.

But the proposal comes amid a lousy economy that is sure to depress a convention industry already struggling from an oversupply of space. A report for the Brookings Institution in 2005 said cities have created a glut by continuing to outdo one another with new cavernous convention halls.

And recently, the convention center posted its 2008 annual report, which revealed a steep decline in the number of out-of-state convention attendees. The center drew 130,000 to national conventions last year, down from 180,000 in 2007, and the lowest number since 2002. (The center did report a record year in attendance at local meetings and events, drawing more than 350,000.)

Attracting out-of-state visitors is the center's primary goal because it brings new spending to the state. Even with the decline, those visitors added $627,000 a day to the state economy, according to convention-center estimates.

The center's backers say expansion makes sense here — — even if other cities have struggled — because Seattle remains a desirable destination. And even with the expansion, the Seattle convention center would remain small compared with its West Coast competitors. (The center is currently the 68th largest in North America.)

Murray said he views the center as a success story, pointing to its role in revitalizing downtown Seattle.

"To those of us who think back to what the downtown core was like before it was there, it has been a big plus," he said.

He said construction work on the expansion could get started as early as next year, creating jobs in a troubled economy.

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But Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Finance Committee, said he has doubts about the convention center's financial projections, which he called "too precious to believe."

Those projections estimate that there is just enough hotel-tax money to pay for the convention-center expansion, with just enough left over to contribute $75 million to the KeyArena renovation sought by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

That would prevent the Legislature from tapping the taxes for other purposes, as lawmakers did last year when they grabbed a $65 million surplus from the convention center's hotel-tax account and diverted it to the state general fund and low-income housing.

No public hearing has been scheduled yet on Murray's bill, Senate Bill 5875, which was referred to the Senate Ways & Means Committee. The bill is co-sponsored by Seattle Democrats Sen. Ken Jacobsen and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, and Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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