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June 18, 2016

Yakima Convention Center making plans for big expansion

Yakima Herald

Mai Hoang

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Yakima Convention Center officials are exploring the idea of a fourth expansion since its opening four decades ago.

They hope to build a 51,000-square-foot exhibit hall that would nearly double the amount of space at the North Eighth Street facility in downtown Yakima. The expansion, which would also include additional meeting space, could occur west toward the neighboring Red Lion Hotel Yakima Center or into the center's two east parking lots.

The current expansion plan is based on recommendations from Bellevue-based Kidder Mathews, which conducted a market study for the center last year.

Center officials are in the process of seeking an architectural firm to provide renderings and offer initial project estimates. They hope to select a firm in 45 days and have renderings and cost estimates in hand by the end of the year, said Connie Upton, Yakima Convention Center general manager.

The city of Yakima, which owns the convention center, has budgeted $25,000 for this stage of the project. Staff would then work with the city over the next year to secure necessary funding, Upton said.

The proposed expansion comes as the 75,344-square-foot center faces stiff and increasing competition from publicly and privately owned convention centers and facilities throughout Eastern Washington offering larger or more modern meeting space. Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick and Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane, which both opened last year, are among the competitors.

"In recent years, nearly all of Yakima's lost market share has been captured in Kennewick," wrote John D. Gordon and Jesse L Baker, who prepared the Kidder Mathews study.

In 2015, 101,762 people attended a multitude of events from Yakima Rotary luncheons to multi-day conferences, generating $9 million in economic activity, according to convention center figures.

But the number of booked event or conference days at the center has dropped from a peak of 610 in 2007 to 480 days in 2015, according to the Kidder Mathews study.

"The feasibility study tells us if we do not expand, we will lose more of our market share," Upton said. "... We obviously lost some groups because we're not large enough to host them."

There also are a number of conventions on the verge of being too large for the facility, such as the annual conference of the Washington Music Educators Association. More than 4,000 attendees were in Yakima in February for this year's conference. Along with the convention center, conference organizers also hosted sessions at several downtown Yakima hotels.

Kidder Mathews also recommended building a new headquarters hotel for the convention center. The priority is adding convention space, but staff is looking into different options, Upton said.

Owners of the Red Lion Hotel Yakima Center, the current convention hotel, are aware of the recommendation but have not made any commitments or plans in response.

The center's last expansion was in 2010 with the construction of a $850,000, 7,000-square-foot outdoor plaza featuring a privacy rock wall, landscaping and overhead lighting. The building itself, which first opened in 1976, was expanded in 1997 and 2003.

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