Port plans major Expo Center change

By SUE RYAN

News staff writer

November 25, 2006

Port of Hood River commissioners will proceed with staff’s recommendation to adapt the Expo Center for commercial re-use following a work session Tuesday night.

The commission asked Port Director Michael McElwee to draft a resolution for a vote at their Dec. 5 meeting. They discussed the staff report Tuesday evening but did not vote on it.

The commissioners discussed the Expo Center’s future as part of their goal-setting for the year in January. They directed staff to evaluate the economic impact and reuse potential of the center Sept. 5. The facility has continuously lost about $50,000 to $70,000 each year for the port, an amount that McElwee said is substantial.

“The budget committee has recommended for the last five years re-examining its use,” he said.

With depreciation added to the operating losses, the building’s total loss annually is around $200,000. The port covers the annual losses with general operating revenue. The Expo Center is vacant for about 317 days out of the year.

The port has held several meetings since October, including sessions with stakeholders, users, and the public to comment on the Expo Center’s future.

The staff looked for input on how the current center benefits the community and the value it brings, how it could be used in other ways in the future, and the impact if it were no longer available. The report presented Tuesday evening looked at three areas: technical analysis, utilization and economic impact analysis, and re-use potential.

From those studies, the port developed five options. One was to maintain the status quo, a second was to implement a new business model, a third to adapt the center for conference or convention use, a fourth to adapt the building for commercial use and a fifth to close and mothball the structure.

Closing the facility could negatively impact the rest of development at the waterfront, which is why the staff chose to not recommend it.

“The question comes up of the future of the Expo relative to the waterfront; whatever happens with the Expo needs to tie in,” McElwee said.

The concept of renovating the space for a convention center was ruled out by some crucial limitations including the spacing of columns, ceiling height, and size. In the end, the staff narrowed the choice to two recommendations but discarded the business model idea.

A modestly upgraded Expo Center could be marketed with a new plan. But the studies showed that even under the best of circumstances it was unlikely enough cash flow would be generated to cover additional debt service, maintenance, and depreciation.

“You would have to determine whether that is feasible and successful enough. to do that you would have to give it time,” McElwee said. “ To give it enough time, I would suggest you would have to give it two years or so.”

The final recommendation, to adapt the Expo Center for commercial re-use, was made with some conditions including keeping the facility open through 2007 and working with existing users to determine alternative locations if the Expo Center were to close in 2008.

The commissioners did not feel one condition was necessary. McElwee had recommended taking six months to determine whether a commercial use is feasible. The commission advocated starting to renovate while seeking a client for the building.

“I have no problem keeping this open through 2007 just to let people find other venues,” said commissioner Fred Duckwall. “But we also want to be working on this building or modifying it at the same time so we are not losing that whole year.”

The commission discussed the issue of zoning. The Expo Center is the only commercially zoned lot at the waterfront. There was some talk about the benefits and disadvantages to changing the zoning to light industrial through the city of Hood River.

The largest event hosted at the center is the Harvest Fest, an issue that came up repeatedly during the meetings held with users.

“It is a strong part of the community’s identity,” McElwee said.

How to accommodate Harvest Fest and work with the Hood River Chamber of Commerce and Visitor’s Center was part of the Tuesday evening discussion. While most of the building is set aside for functions, the chamber and center have their day-to-day operations located in the building.

For the Harvest Fest celebration, McElwee will research the idea of putting the event into tents at the event site or across from the Expo Center building.

“Tents these days are simple enough and strong enough and cheap enough to do it,” he said.

He said other events could be accommodated at the fairgrounds and National Guard armory. Commissioners also discussed the availability of the new Horizon Christian School for events.

Chamber Director Craig Schmidt gave his personal thoughts on the staff report and recommendation on Friday morning but has yet to discuss the issue with his board and the chamber. He said while the port’s decision did not come as a surprise, there were several concerns about the idea to redevelop the Expo Center for commercial re-use.

“The port has stated that the Expo was underutilized and, as such, was losing money for the Port, but there are values that cannot be found on a ledger sheet. There has been no marketing plan for years and I know of two businesses that have shown an interest in managing the Expo and I’m not sure if those avenues have been given serious consideration,” he said. “I am concerned that when this facility goes to a different use, the community will lose an asset that we may never be able to regain.”

He said he felt for the Harvest Fest it would not be financially or logistically feasible to do the event in tents. Schmidt said what the future of the Visitor Center would be is unclear.

“That has been a function of the Port since 1972, developed and managed by the Chamber in exchange for office space,” Schmidt said. “It’s an important tool for promotion of our tourism industry and I’m uncertain as to how we will address that challenge.”

The chamber occupies 967 square feet and operates the 3,500 square foot Visitors Center. There is an estimated 20,000 visitors per year to the visitors center.

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