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Friday, September 18, 2009

Breaking: Convention Center Hotel Is Dead

Posted by Matt Davis on Fri, Sep 18, 2009 at 5:04 PM

Portland's prospects for a convention center hotel are dead, at least for the time being.

Mayor Sam Adams, County Chair Ted Wheeler, and Metro Regional Council President David Bragdon have been in a meeting at county headquarters this afternoon, discussing whether or not to continue the development deadline for a convention center hotel on Portland's East Side.

"The current state of revenues for visitor taxes will not support continued study, and so we are going to let our agreement lapse," says Bragdon, of Metro's agreement with the Ashforth Group, which had been pulled together to develop the hotel."The current agreement has been extended several times until September 28th, and we will now allow it to expire."

Metro was planning to take between $5million and $12million from its visitor taxes on studying the idea further and be reimbursed by lodging taxes collected by the county. "But the three of us decided that this was not a prudent course of action," says Bragdon. "This proposal is dead."

"There isn't room. Given the projections going forward, there just aren't funds available," says Wheeler. "This is a financial decision, all three of us agree that this is a good idea."

Was it a tense meeting? "No, I didn't think it was," says Wheeler. "Ted did not get too uppity," says Bragdon. "I only threw a few things," says Wheeler. Jokes!

"I don't think it's news that we're in a big recession that affects all areas of the community, but we have an existing investment in the Convention Center that we want to try to make the most of," says Bragdon. "Obviously it's a more marketable facility if there's a hotel across the street, but there are all kinds of factors in the convention business, some of which are beyond our control."

"We're not just taking a look at this, doing the analysis and walking away," says Wheeler. "We all agree that travel and tourism is important, and we understand that in the absence of a headquarters hotel we're going to come back to the table over the coming months and work together to get a strategy together."

We're awaiting a response from Mayor Adams, who had just left the meeting when the Mercury spoke with Wheeler and Bragdon over the phone. Their joint statement is here as a pdf, with thorough-ish analysis, given that this news has been BURIED last thing on a Friday afternoon, after the jump.

The trio had to make a decision by September 28 as to whether to let the current "development agreement" on the hotel expire. Adams already asked for an extension on it back in April, and it doesn't look like conditions have improved much in the market since then. Visitors to Portland generated $3.8billion in 2008, and booster groups like Travel Portland (which produced that statistic) have been hoping that a convention center hotel could lure even more money from conventioneers. Oregon is aiming to be a "sustainable convention destination," filling a niche left open by places like Las Vegas. But there are plenty of skeptics.

Adams has been desperately trying to keep the hotel alive since Metro announced it was ready to drop its pursuit of the $247.5million idea last December. To convince Metro, Mayor Adams even convened a "task force" of hoteliers, developers, union representatives, brokers, finance professors, lawyers, and bankers which recommended continuing. (Quelle surprise: They all stood to benefit from the idea).

Meanwhile both Bragdon and Wheeler have been outspoken skeptics over recent months.

In March, The Nines hotel downtown stopped paying back $16.9 million in loans from the Portland Development Commission (PDC) until 2011, because its developer, Sage Hospitality Resources, over-projected demand for corporate meetings and business travel. The Nines deal was struck under former Mayor Vera Katz, while Adams was her chief of staff.

For Adams to even consider using more urban renewal dollars from PDC to fund another hotel, now, seemed to many (including me) like the triumph of optimism over experience. Read more in a column I wrote back in April. I just haven't been shown any numbers that convince me we should cross our fingers with public money on this deal—it all just reminded me of the temptation to splooge away public cash on big ideas to be like a "real, big city," that is characteristic of the more unwise chapters in Portland's history, like when we bid for the 1968 Olympics. If it's such a good idea, why isn't a private investor willing to shoulder all the risk? Etcetera.

Portland is best when it thinks different. Not when it tries to do what all the "real cities" do. Just Look at how Detroit turned out.

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