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June 26, 2016

Convention center plans worth a look so valuable Yakima asset stays viable

Yakima Herald

Yakima offers a number of amenities for those attending regional conventions: sunshine; a central location; a growing number of diversions in the form of wineries, restaurants and concerts; and a convention center that was last expanded in 2010.

Now, officials say, the Yakima Convention Center needs another expansion in order to compete with other locales east of the Cascades.

The center finds a variety of uses, from local events like civic club luncheons to public hearings on governmental issues. It's in the larger events, such as the Washington Music Educator Association conference or the Central City Comic Con, that really draw outsiders to the area - to the tune of an estimated $9 million in economic activity last year. In all, more than 100,000 people walked through the doors of the convention center in 2015.

But a number of folks are starting to walk elsewhere. Kennewick and Spokane have amped up the competition with newer and more modern facilities that opened last year. The Three Rivers Convention Center in Kennewick especially has put a serious dent in Yakima's business.

A market study by Bellevue-based Kidder Mathews found that the number of booked event or conference days in Yakima dropped from a high of 610 in 2007 to 480 last year; most of that, according to Kidder Mathews, went to Kennewick.

With that information in hand, Yakima Convention Center officials want to expand the 75,000-square-foot center by building a 51,000-square-foot exhibit hall; the total square footage would put Yakima's facility in the same neighborhood as Spokane's.

The expansion desire is more than an edifice complex; the music educators conference, long a February fixture in Yakima during a generally slow time of the year, is outgrowing the convention center. This year, more than 4,000 people attended sessions at the center and at several downtown Yakima hotels.

The center went up in 1976 and since has been expanded in 1997, 2003 and 2010. As for the next go-round, convention center officials are seeking an architectural firm; once that is done, they hope to have artistic renderings and cost estimates by the end of the year.

The convention trade comprises a critical part of efforts to attract visitors - and their economic contribution - to the Yakima Valley. If the price is right, then this effort warrants a serious look.

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