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Seattle’s massive $2B convention center finally opens after delays

By David Gutman, The Seattle Times
Published: January 24, 2023, 7:31am

SEATTLE — Seattle’s newest building is a $2 billion glass-and-steel modernist monolith, looming over Interstate 5, dominating a mega-block in the heart of downtown, and it is poised to boost a neighborhood revival — or linger, half-filled as downtown continues its staggered recovery from the pandemic.

The new downtown Seattle Convention Center is massive.

Filling the blocks between Pine Street and Olive Way, Boren and Ninth avenues, the convention center expansion stands 14 stories high, with 10 football fields of event and meeting space totaling 573,770 square feet. There are 62 meeting rooms, two cavernous exhibit halls (one of which you can drive tractor-trailers into) and a ballroom with a 55-foot ceiling that can seat 4,000 people.

The building, after a half-decade in construction and many more years in planning, after evicting downtown buses, after nearly running out of money and stalling, half-built, in the depths of the pandemic, is set for its grand opening this week.

Known as Summit, the new building received its occupancy permit just two weeks ago and hosted its first event on Friday the 13th. A ribbon-cutting is planned for Wednesday morning and the public is invited for an open house Friday afternoon.

About half the ground floor will feature restaurants and shops, while the remainder, and the five upper and lower levels, will be largely for event attendees only.

Inside the building, mezzanines give way to atriums. Interior balconies look out over stomach-clenching views. Floor-to-ceiling windows on every side showcase downtown, Capitol Hill, First Hill and South Lake Union.

There is a garden terrace balcony overlooking the Paramount Theatre and its historic facade. A gradually sloping, continuous madrone wood staircase — known as the Hillclimb — ascends most of the length and height of the building, and from its peak offers a corridor view down Pine Street to Pike Place Market and the Sound.

Wood adornments abound: Vertical plywood slats hang from the ceiling, 3,900 salvaged Douglas fir planks hang above the ballroom.

The building isn’t quite done. There is still landscaping to complete, art to install and other finishing touches that will take the next few months.

It sits on the site of the former Convention Place bus station, which the county sold to the convention center for $161 million to make room for the new building.

Almost all of it is funded by King County’s lodging tax, a 7% fee on hotel rooms in the city of Seattle and a 2.8% tax on hotel rooms in King County outside Seattle.

The convention center, which is a self-governing Public Facilities District, sold bonds on future lodging tax revenue to fund the project, which went about $300 million over budget.

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Essentially, it’s a bet that a bigger convention center will bring more hotel guests, who, in turn, will pay more hotel tax, which will then be used to pay back the cost of building the bigger convention center.

In terms of operations, the convention center seeks to break even, with fees from exhibitors covering the costs to maintain and operate the facilities.

The new facility will be used as an addition to — not a replacement for — the existing convention center, known as Arch, which hangs over Pike Street, just a block away.

Officials hope the building, and the visitors they hope to attract, can help revitalize downtown, which hasn’t seen office workers fully return since the pandemic and has seen retail vacancies soar.

As of late 2021, more than 300 new street-level businesses had opened downtown since the pandemic began, according to the Downtown Seattle Association, but roughly 500 had closed. Nike, Regal Meridian, Facebook and Amazon all recently announced they were closing businesses or leaving offices downtown.

There are fewer than half as many office workers downtown as there were in 2019, according to the association’s data, and hotel bookings, while close to their 2019 levels, still haven’t fully recovered.

“We think that we can be a catalyst for helping reinvigorate the whole downtown core,” said Jeff Blosser, president and CEO of the Seattle Convention Center, estimating that it could draw 300,000 people a year.

Arch, the existing convention center, held events that brought in 369,000 in 2019, a figure down from the three prior years.

Blosser said they’re hoping the new facility will be able to attract about one “citywide” convention a week, that’s an event that uses at least one full 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall.

They currently have 21 such events booked for the new space in 2023 — including four that are big enough to use both the new facility and the older one and many other smaller events — a little less than half of where they’d like to be.

In the first year of the pandemic, when the convention and exhibition industry essentially shut down, the convention center expansion looked to be in danger of stalling half-built.

Developers pleaded with city, county and state officials for a $300 million bailout, warning the project could halt mid-construction, leaving a functionless cement and steel skeleton, looming over prime downtown real estate.

King County agreed to provide a low-interest, $100 million loan. Seattle and state government leaders both said they’d likely be willing to follow suit, if conditions were right.

In the end, none of it was needed.

Months after the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, with millions of Americans getting shots and life beginning to return to normal, the project was able to secure private financing to fill the funding gap. In spring 2021, the Convention Center sold $342 million in bonds, backed by future King County hotel tax revenue.

The bond sale funded the completion of the project and provided a vote of confidence from financial markets that convention and tourism industries would bounce back.

But even with a completed convention center, the question remains: In an economy where millions of workers may have permanently abandoned the daily office commute, will professional conventions, conferences and exhibitions return to what they once were, or has Seattle built a beautiful and expensive boondoggle?

“National associations have annual meetings … for their membership and they’ve still got to have those,” Blosser said. “That’s going to continue to be a need and our city can help facilitate that. Seattle is still a huge destination.”

Industry analysts remain confident in convention and conference travel, even as the industry has lagged behind others in recovering from the pandemic.

The industry, in the third quarter of last year, remained 22% below where it was in 2019, according to the latest data from the Center for Exhibition Industry Research. Still, that’s a big improvement — in the first quarter of 2021, as vaccines were just beginning to roll out and the national economy was bouncing back, convention activity was still 94% below its 2019 levels, according to data from CEIR, an industry research group.

CEIR tracks convention and exhibition activity nationwide using an index of square feet of exhibit space sold, number of exhibiting companies and attendance and revenues generated.

They’re expecting a full rebound, not this year but in 2024, said Cathy Breden, the group’s CEO.

“The industry closely tracks the economy,” Breden said. “The underlying fundamentals of the economy have been strong, but the threat of a recession is making companies pull back.”

Brad Mayne, president and CEO of the International Association of Venue Managers, said that conventions have lagged a little bit behind sporting events, concerts and other arena events in returning from the pandemic.

“In the long run it’s expected convention centers are going to come back,” Mayne said. “There’s no question that the convention center in Seattle will be useful in bringing in events.”