Jan 25, 2023 - News

Seattle convention center expansion sparks hope

Shot of the new convention center building, called Summit, in downtown Seattle.
The Seattle Convention Center's addition, Summit, opens this week. Photo: Courtesy of the Downtown Seattle Association

The Seattle Convention Center's long-awaited new addition — which nearly doubles the city's convention-hosting capacity — opens this week amid fanfare and big dreams.

Why it matters: The hope is the expansion will draw more conventions that can bolster the economy and recovery of downtown Seattle, which has lagged behind that of other major U.S. cities.

  • But the reality is that those impacts may not be fully felt for another year or two since conventions are typically booked at least two years in advance, Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, told Axios Seattle.
  • Seattle convention bookings are forecast to be down 45% in 2023 from 2019, Anton said.
  • That means sustained impact may not be felt by retailers, restaurants and hotels until 2024 or 2025, even if conventions and work-related travel fully rebound.

By the numbers: The $2 billion, 14-story addition at 9th and Pine features a half million square-feet of event space and 248,450 square-feet of exhibit space, according to the Seattle Convention Center. It was funded primarily by existing hotel and lodging taxes in Seattle and King County.

  • Nearly five years in the making, the Summit addition was originally predicted to bring in an estimated $260 million per year in visitor spending.
  • It was also expected to create as many as 1,600 additional jobs and boost year-round demand for Seattle businesses.

Then COVID happened and for a while, the numbers were grim.

  • Storefronts were closing right and left, and according to 2022 data from the Downtown Seattle Association, offices were just 42% as full as they were before the pandemic.
  • Restaurant bookings were down 36% in 2022 compared to 2019.

But, but, but: The most recent 2023 report from the downtown association shows worker foot traffic improved for the third consecutive month in December, creeping up to 44% of 2019's levels.

  • And occupancy in residential units continued to climb to record levels in the fourth quarter of 2022.
  • James Sido, of the Downtown Seattle Association, told Axios that a slew of new retail shops have opened or are about to open, including Uniqlo at 4th and Pine and Bon Appetit-recognized OHSUN Banchan in Pioneer Square.

What they're saying: Sido said that the key draws of the city — a walkable downtown and unique stores and restaurants — are still in demand for tourists and residents alike.

  • "We still have a ways to go, but we think we're moving in the right direction."

What's next: The public can take self-guided tours at the open house on Friday.

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