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When it comes to conventions and conferences, offering a middle ground isn't a bad thing.

For Yakima, Wash., an early start doesn't hurt, either. 

Yakima is 140 miles east of Seattle and 200 miles west of Spokane. Washington's two largest cities easily outshine the 93,000-resident community when it comes to drawing crowds, but if you're trying to appeal to people in both ends of the state, Yakima's a sensible choice.

The 41,000-square-foot Yakima Convention Center, owned by the city of Yakima, boasts a 23,400-square-foot ballroom and 850 hotel rooms within walking distance.

"It's affordable, right in the middle of town and is within walking distance of the local attractions," says Dana Colwell, an event manager in Washington.

Hilton Garden Inn, Red Lion, Holiday Inn, Howard Johnson, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Guest House International and Oxford Suites are all clustered within a half-mile.

"And parking at the center is free," says Colwell, who most recently set up an event for 400 in-state attendees in September. "The challenge with smaller-area convention centers is usually transportation, but the events I manage, people come from all over the country."

Yakima Convention Center was built in 1976 with private funds and gifted to the city, says Connie Upton, the facility's general manager for the past 21 years. Following expansions in 1997 and 2003, it is nearly triple its original 14,000 square feet.

"Not every group can afford the big cities, so second-tier cities come into play for many groups," Upton says. "That's why we get so many non-profit groups and fraternal groups."

Yakima hosted 507 events during 2014, using 59 percent of the venue's capacity. December and January are generally slow months.

"We're typically between 55 and 60 percent capacity," Upton says. "We're dark on holidays and some Sundays, but we do host two church services a month."

While it didn't take a large commitment of public funds to build, the convention center's subsequent capital improvements have been funded by a local lodging tax.

"We had a huge amount of local support when this was first built," Upton says. "I think today there would be desire, but funding would be a huge issue; everything is so expensive now."

Costs are not lost on Medford civic and community leaders, who are taking a methodical and cautious approach even in the feasibility stage of a conference/convention center.

While the idea of has surfaced from time to time, no concerted effort to evaluate demand and need for a convention center has gotten this far. Even if a project is outlined, it would be years before it came to fruition.

Few cities, however, have strung out the process quite like Appleton, Wis., which is proceeding toward summer 2016 construction of a $27.5 million Fox Cities Exhibition Center.

"This has been part of the conversation in some form in the Fox Valley for 29 years," says Karen Harkness, Appleton's community and economic development director, who has been involved in the process since 2008. "Our study came back in 2008 telling us we had the hotels, a quality performing arts center, meeting rooms and ballrooms. What we didn't have was exhibit space."

Appleton has roughly the same population as Medford and is 30 miles south of Green Bay and 100 miles north of Milwaukee.

An 18-member county counsel had to approve the project, and 10 city councils, the last of which gave its nod Nov. 24, had to agree to higher transient room taxes.

"There is a saying in the Fox Valley: It takes us forever to burn toast," Harkness says. "But once the decision is made, you will not find a community more collaborative or regional in its approach."

Such was the case, she says, in a $45 million, 2,100-seat performing arts center built in 2002.

Timing is important. When the financial markets tumbled into recession eight years ago, the cost of materials and building fell as well.

So a couple of years after tabling a conference center, Utah County, outside of Salt Lake City, decided the time was ripe to build something that previously didn't pencil out.

"The last thing you want is an albatross hanging around your neck and fighting an uphill battle to fill the place every day while it's sucking up tax money," says Joel Racker, president and CEO of the Utah Valley Visitors and Convention Bureau. "We lost the private dollars to do it when the economy went to hell, but in 2009 we resurrected the project."

A 130,000-square-foot building with 83,000 square feet of marketable space, including a 19,620-square-foot exhibit hall and 16,894-square-foot grand ballroom, that otherwise would have cost as much as $63 million was built in 2010 for $39 million, plus $3 million for the property.

"The cost of steel and concrete fell that much," Racker says.

The lack of hotel rooms in the immediate area remains an obstacle, Racker says, noting the center's "sweet spot" is conferences with 275 to 450 booked rooms.

"We could do groups of 1,000 to 1,300, but we just don't have the lodging to support it," he says. "We've been proactive in talking with third-party convention planners, selectively and surgically finding groups that fit our criteria."

As a result, he says, the center will provide a positive return to Utah County this year.

"That's something very unusual in the world of convention centers," Racker says.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.


The Fox Cities Exhibition Center being built in Appelton, Wis., has been a community effort for 29 years. Fox Cities drawing
The Yakima Convention Center is within walking distance to atttractions and 850 hotel rooms. Photo from yakimavalleytourism.wordpress.com