Can Seattle's convention center expansion give downtown a lift?
Downtown Seattle is a different place than it was just three years ago.
Office occupancy rates remain low compared to pre-pandemic levels, meaning workers aren’t around to spend money at retailers or restaurants. Public safety issues have caused some storefronts to close shop and open elsewhere.
In the core of downtown stands the recently opened Summit building - an expansion to Seattle’s Convention Center. It takes up four city blocks and offers panoramic views of the city.
On a recent tour, Seattle Convention Center President and CEO Jeff Blosser said the new building allowed the convention center to rebrand itself. Blosser said it can also play a part in revitalizing downtown.
The details inside the building are meant to reflect Seattle. In a common area, designed as a gathering spot, each floor features a nod to Seattle history. Like on the fourth floor where there’s a glassed-in collection of cassette tapes from bands that got their start in Seattle.
“So if you're a, you know, Sir Mix-A-Lot fan or Nirvana fan or opera, it's really all about the Seattle scene for music,” Blosser said. “And so we try to tell these little stories on each side of these that talk about the things that are happening."
“We want to make sure that if you've never been here before, we want to make sure you know what Seattle is all about.”Jeff Blosser, Seattle Convention Center President and CEO
Blosser said while some cities have their convention center on the edge of the city, Seattle’s is right in the middle.
“People can walk to retail, they can walk to the other building if they need to; they can walk to all the hotels, they can walk to all the restaurants and enjoy all of downtown without having to get on a bus or cab or Uber or whatever,” Blosser said.
On this particular day, there are about 4,000 people attending conferences in the convention center’s two buildings: the Summit and Arch — the original convention center built in the 1980s. Blosser said those are people who will likely eat, shop and spend money in the city.
But as much as the convention center can control the experience inside the building, it can be a different story once visitors step outside. So how does Blosser address safety concerns of those contemplating a convention in Seattle?
“Every city's doing that. So we're not we're not alone in that scenario. We're encouraged by the mayor just announcing his revitalization plan for downtown. Part of that has to do with the safety component with it. We think that is a critical issue for us,” Blosser said.
Blosser is referring to Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s plan to make the area safer, livable and attractive for visitors.
Blosser said safety concerns have lessened in the past six months.
“We're encouraged about the direction that we're going," Blosser said. "We're starting to have people come in and go, ‘you know, it's not as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
The Summit building was constructed largely during the pandemic as the convention industry essentially came to a standstill. It opens as business travel finally starts to pick back up.
“We lost a couple of years [during] the pandemic for selling, which made it kind of difficult. And we're kind of trying to catch up. We have 44 conventions booked in the two buildings this year, and we're starting to see a lot more activity now,” Blosser said.
Blosser's heard predictions the industry will completely rebound in about two years. He said if the convention center can continue getting people in town, buying at retailers and eating at restaurants, then hopefully more businesses will return to the downtown area.
“I think we're in a good spot,” he said.