A cornerstone of our region’s economic future and coronavirus recovery is in serious jeopardy.
As you drive on Interstate 5 through downtown Seattle, you can see the half-built Washington State Convention Center surrounded by several tower cranes. Once completed, the expanded Convention Center will cement our community as a world-class destination for business, entertainment and culture.
For more than a decade, the Convention Center has been planning to expand with a new facility. Over the years, King County Executive Dow Constantine, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, the Metropolitan King County Council, the Seattle City Council, labor leaders, businesses, private stakeholders and community groups have worked together to make the addition at Ninth Avenue and Olive Way a reality.
Sadly, this much-needed expansion may be halted due to a coronavirus-induced financing crisis. Stopping construction before completion would be a disaster and impede our region’s recovery.
Thousands of construction workers would be out of work. To make matters worse, the nearly 1,000 caterers, custodians and other staff who would work in the new facility would not have a job.
The tourism traffic to local businesses like those at the Pike Place Market and Nordstrom would be lost just as our flagging economy needs it the most. With thousands of our neighbors suddenly out of work, the completed addition is expected to provide 3,900 direct and indirect permanent jobs.
While some cities expand their convention centers simply to be more competitive, we are different. Completion of the addition will create capacity, so we won’t have to turn away conventions and meetings that bring billions of dollars in economic activity to our local economy. In a five-year period before start of construction in 2018, the Convention Center turned away more business than it booked because of a lack of space or available dates. This equates to more than $2.1 billion in potential revenue that this region lost.
The Convention Center is a public facilities district paid for by a lodging tax on hotel/motel room use collected throughout King County, mainly from visitors from outside our region. To fund most of the costs to develop the addition project and double the Convention Center’s capacity, the public facilities district issued bonds in 2018 that relied on the lodging tax. It still has about $300 million of bonds to issue to complete construction.
As recently as February, the lodging tax revenues were on track to satisfy this final funding. Since then, however, the coronavirus emergency has decimated the entire tourism sector of the economy, and the region’s hotels and motels are virtually without business. In King County alone, about 80,000 workers depend on the hospitality industry to feed their families and pay for housing. Most of these people are now unemployed. The lodging tax revenue for 2020 is estimated at only 40% of 2019, and next year may be even worse.
Eventually, we will come out of this downturn as we have in the past. When we emerge from this uncertain time, the completion of the addition project, currently scheduled for 2022, will be a critical tool to help rejuvenate our regional economy, particularly the hospitality sector. Hotels, restaurants, bars, cultural centers and sports venues not only attract visitors to our community — they sustain hundreds of thousands of important jobs and worker incomes.
The bottom line is this important project needs a financial bridge from the federal government to keep the addition moving forward. As members of Congress consider projects to put people to work, completion of this project is an obvious choice to prioritize.
After the Great Recession, governments sought projects that were “shovel-ready.” Today, we must do even better to keep people working and make sure they are continuing to build for our future. This project is a perfect fit to help fuel our economic recovery. The addition has the potential to be an economic and cultural hub for decades to come.
For the economic health of our region, let’s keep the addition going. Our community depends on it.