AUG. 28 - County officials were on the West Coast last week, visiting conference centers that may serve as models for a proposed conference center in Arlington.
"In some ways, it was a clarifying experience," said Chris Zimmerman, County Board Chair. Zimmerman, Board Vice Chair Charles Monroe, and Arlington economic development officials made the trip to three conference centers, one in Seattle and two in Vancouver, Canada. They also talked to local officials in both cities who were responsible for the decision to build the centers, and the architects and managers for the facilities.
It illuminated some of the requirements in building a conference center, Zimmerman said, and also proved the economic viability of such facilities.
An Arlington conference center would be built to add to the county’s economy, drawing visitors to Arlington for conferences and conventions, and in the process bringing revenue to county hotels, restaurants and other businesses.
The visit to the Pacific Northwest proved that goal could be met, Zimmerman said, but it also had other benefits. "One of the best things was, there are examples of what people wouldn’t do now, or what they would do differently," he said. "One thing is very clear: the design has to be integrated, and the people running it have to be involved."
Otherwise, there can be mistakes major and minor in the design. In the Vancouver conference center, some meeting rooms are equipped with translation booths, but the design of a staircase left them almost completely inaccessible. Similarly, one center the Arlington delegation visited had installed chrome on doors into an exhibition hall – a feature that proved impossible to maintain during high traffic conferences.
If the future managers of a facility are involved early, Zimmerman said, that can help avoid such problems, and thereby keep from wasting money.
<b>MONEY IS WHAT</b> Arlington brings to a prospective conference center. During this year’s General Assembly session, Arlington representatives introduced legislation that would help fund the construction of a conference center by raising taxes on hotel room rentals.
Del James Almand (D-47) and Sen. Patricia Ticer (D-30) introduced similar legislation in both houses of the Assembly, allowing the county to raise taxes on hotel rooms to 2 percent. The measures passed, allowing the county to raise the money.
The additional tax would leave the county collecting a tax of 2 percent of room charges on all hotel rooms in Arlington. But the county could only impose the additional tax if additional revenues went towards construction of an Arlington Conference Center.
But the county needs to pursue the center as a joint venture with a private corporation, Zimmerman said. "That was my inclination beforehand. If we’re going to do this, it needs to be done as some kind of public-private partnership," he said. In that scenario, Arlington County would bring the capital to fund construction, and a company with a management record in the conference and tourism industry would run the center when built.
"The guy who runs the larger Vancouver facility told us, you have to have a business plan," Zimmerman said. If the center opens with a solid business plan, it can bring money in on its own, not just through increased taxes on hotel revenues.
"Generally, these sorts of projects are loss leaders that you hope will make money from the business drawn in," he said. "But if managed properly, they can break even or even make money on the operating side."
<b>ZIMMERMAN'S PLANS SUIT</b> Arlington's business community to a tee.
"I called for that in early stages of investigative process," said Richard Doud, president of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. "The chamber asked that serious consideration be given to [any conference center] not just being another county department."
Any conference center will be a massive undertaking, Doud said, and it would befit the county to let someone manage such a facility who had the appropriate experience.
But Doud said his support, and the Chamber's, continued to be wholeheartedly behind county plans, including the Northwest trip.
"It sounds like some kind of a junket, but they really aren’t," he said. "You get to see things you usually wouldn’t see, and go places you wouldn’t normally go."