Convention Center in Olympia

How often have you heard that Olympia needs a convention center? I typically hear these kinds of comments from prominent and well-connected members of our dear business or tourist community. The problems associated with convention centers are detailed in this Article in the Atlantic Cities:

The reason for all this bustle is entirely economic: cities believe that convention centers are key to bringing in those coveted tourism dollars. The promise of huge groups of visitors descending, in need of places to sleep, eat, shop, perhaps catch a show, is an alluring one, especially for cities that struggle to get residents downtown.

But there’s a problem with this building bonanza, and it’s a doozy: There aren’t really enough conventions to go around. The actual number of conventions hosted in the U.S. has fallen over the last decade. Attendance at the 200 largest conventions peaked at about 5 million in the mid-1990s and has fallen steadily since then.

While I suppose there are reasons to believe that Olympia might be a reasonable destination for a convention center, I personally don’t find any of them compelling enough to justify the public expense. Olympia is nowhere near the airport, its tourist infrastructure is pathetic (e.g. very few hotels, though we may be adding one far enough away to dismiss it as an addition to the tourist infrastructure and “higher scale”—palatable to the convention attendees at least—restaurants are spread thin in the downtown core. Finally, aside from the state capital, currently slumbering music scene, and a beer that has not been produced here in a decade, Olympia has no national cachet.) I’ll come right out and say it, I don’t know why a convention center should ever be considered here.

The conclusion to the piece is eye opening:

And convention center market over-saturation means that reeling those visitors in has become harder and harder. Christopher Leinberger, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program and former partner at an international real estate consulting firm, says that too many cities bought into the same dream at the same time.

“So many were saying, ‘all you have to do is get one percent of the national market and you’ll do just fine,'” he says. “Three hundred cities bought the same logic.”

As a result, too many convention centers struggle to provide the economic benefit they initially promised. “You need to look very carefully before building another convention center in this country,” Leinberger says. These centers require huge investments, money that could be better used “to bolster the quality of life, the parks, the retailing, the homeless situation.”

The piece is a very interesting example of the problems associated with municipal competition within a limited spatial configuration (even if we’re talking about the entire U.S.). There simply is a limited number of conventions—more destinations than conventions which means there will be plenty of underutilized convention space in the country. That makes the participants in this game akin to nighthawks sitting at the poker table except that their first hand is only one they get regardless of how many times they try to play. (I don’t gamble and don’t know its references.) Does this make sense? If so, why would Olympia want to deal itself in, and what could we be doing instead?

What say ye?

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One Response to Convention Center in Olympia

  1. –this is a great discussion that should take place in front of council–

    There will soon be two Hilton developments (2013-2014) near Watershed, so the concept of an additional hotel and/or convention center on/in downtown (perhaps at Eastbay) is flawed.

    The fallow-land at Eastbay can be converted to a temporary-use as a downtown dog park with the addition of a few gates, a couple of waste cans, a water hydrant, and a wood-chipped perimeter pathway.

    A recent walk-thru of The Olympia Center ( revealed this center to be an incredibly well-staffed facility and a vibrant venue for day-use and program-specific events ~ be sure to consider this existing public building for your next event or simply stop-in and enjoy the amenities during weekdays & all-day Saturdays

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