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Seeking federal help, officials say state convention center project is in jeopardy

Construction on the Washington State Convention Center expansion is at risk of stopping due to financial impacts of the pandemic, officials say.

A steep drop in hotel tax revenue has jeopardized the construction of a sprawling new convention center facility that sits about 30 percent complete along Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle, the developer behind the project said Friday.

Without $300 million in needed financing, work on the Washington State Convention Center addition project would halt in 10 to 12 months, said the project's lead developer, Matt Griffin of the Pine Street Group.

King County officials, business advocates, and developers of the project said they're urging Washington's congressional delegation to secure funding in an upcoming stimulus package or find a way to provide security for bonds.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the roughly $1.7 billion project is vital to helping the local economy recover from impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"One of the centerpieces of our regional economy is the visitor industry and the convention center, which is at its heart," Constantine told reporters in an virtual news conference. "As recovery continues, we're going to need every tool in the toolbox and there are few that are more important than the convention center addition." 

Credit Image courtesy of LMN Architects
A rendering of the Washington State Convention Center addition project

Proponents have billed the convention center expansion as transformative to downtown Seattle and the region's economy. When the project broke ground in 2018, backers said Seattle had turned down more than 350 event proposals during the prior five years due to lack of capacity, representing more than $2 billion in lost economic activity — a problem the expansion was meant to solve.

Pedestrian and open space improvements tied to the project also would "knit together" neighborhoods currently sundered by past infrastructure projects, such as Capitol Hill, South Lake Union, and the Denny Triangle, proponents said.

But the project relied on bonds backed by local lodging tax revenue, which has dried up as tourism has halted during the pandemic. Griffin said he had been planning to issue $300 million in bonds in two installments over roughly the next year, which no longer seems possible.

"It would be quite unfortunate, obviously," Griffin said of the prospect of stopping construction. "We will basically about a thousand construction workers on the job site at the time, and we would have to send them all home. So at a time when we're trying to recover and put money in people's pockets to spend around Seattle we won't be able to do that. So we need help."

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Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.