We can stop losing conventions

Two views • Convention Center hotel would bring city millions of dollars - or saddle it with an unwise risk
by: Tribune File Photo, A debate still rages on whether the Oregon Convention Center could attract more conventions, and help the city’s overall economy, with the construction of a large hotel adjacent to the center.

In terms of bringing more tourism dollars into our regional economy, how do we get from where we are - losing 17 conventions to date this year with a combined economic impact of $29.6 million - to where we want to be?

When Portland loses a convention that it was on the short list to win, Travel Portland, the city's destination marketing office, takes pains to ask the respective meeting planner why. The number one reason given by planners: Portland's lack of a headquarters hotel adjacent to the Oregon Convention Center.

The solution to this hurdle impeding the flow of dollars and business to Portland is to build a hotel. But the recession and its attendant financial restrictions have made that solution more challenging.

To overcome these restrictions, the proposal's supporters are pursuing a public-private partnership that doesn't require the use of taxpayer dollars. The plan is to protect taxpayer interests while still producing maximum, long-range economic benefit in terms of both direct spending and taxes paid by visitors. In short, bonds will finance the project; the guests staying in the hotel will pay back the bonds and operating costs.

Another goal for the project is to enhance the impact of the convention center - which currently generates about $400 million a year in regional spending. The center has dates to fill, but the scales tip dramatically, depending on whether those dates are filled by national conventions as opposed to public shows that attract primarily a local, non-hotel-using audience.

The average local public show attendee spends about $30 a day, while the center's typical out-of-town convention delegate spends 10 times that much each day on lodging, meals, retail purchases and other expenditures.

In the short term, the hotel will bring another benefit to our city - jobs. Portland is experiencing unemployment of more than 10 percent, and that figure is almost doubled in the construction industry. Having construction projects in the pipeline 24 to 36 months from now means getting those projects into the pipeline soon. The hotel offers real, long-term job opportunities - from operations to management - but it is the near-term construction work that will help bolster Portland's labor force. And with the hotel being planned as a LEED Platinum facility - one of only two in the nation - Portland will have a hotel that embodies our values even as our engineering and construction industries grow their green building expertise.

Travel Portland is fully committed to ensuring that the entire community benefit from these plans. It's also important to understand that the public's stake in the project allows the public to set some of the rules regarding how the hotel will operate, including establishing mandatory room blocks for conventions, which means the property will concentrate on bringing national meeting business to town, as opposed to focusing solely on leisure and/or corporate travelers.

A convention center hotel was always a component in the city's convention development plans. For 20 years, the project has been part of the long-term goal to increase tourism's positive economic impact on the region. It's tough to think about building a hotel at this very moment. But pursuing the option thoughtfully and building in the near future will put Portland in a plum spot.

When the recession ends and business ramps back up, we'd like to see the city, the region and local residents positioned to benefit immediately.

Jeff Miller, president and chief executive officer of Travel Portland, Portland's official destination marketing office, lives in Portland's King's Hill/Goose Hollow neighborhood.