LONG BEACH - The quest for a resort hotel/convention center in downtown Long Beach did not die this summer following the failed land swap which involved the city, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and Vancouver-based RealVest Corp.

In fact, the idea is still very much alive in the minds of city leaders such as Long Beach City Administrator Nabiel Shawa, who at a recent city council meeting outlined the city's strategy to bring a convention center to town.

According to Shawa, immediately after the failed land swap this summer, which would have traded off an approximately 45-acre chunk of prime oceanfront State Parks property for a piece of RealVest Corp. property in the Beards Hollow area, the city began to look again at property on South 10th Street.

This property was the first choice prior to the proposed land swap, which sidelined the city's attention for approximately two years. It is jointly owned by former state Sen. Sid Snyder, Pacific County Planning Commission Chair Rob Snow, Cottage Bakery owners Bob and Judi Andrew, Midway Printery owner Frances O'Neil, and Marion Marsh, owner of Marsh's Free Museum.

Current movement toward getting a convention center is not at a breakneck speed, but more of a snail's pace, making sure that all the necessary permits are in place if all the pieces come together.

Recently, the city published a legal notice stating that it is moving ahead with permits for the 10th Street property, such as the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit (SSDP) and Joint Aquatic Permit Review Application (JARPA).

"This project has been going on for a couple of years and we pledged to those property owners before we ever got involved with RealVest that we would pursue the permits necessary to develop this project," said Shawa. "So we are keeping good to that pledge in pursuing permits with Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Ecology and other regulatory agencies. Now, whether the project goes ahead or not, who knows?"

Shawa said at the very least, if a convention center project on the 10th Street property never comes to fruition, the land owners are left with something of value for another development.

In a legal notice published on Nov. 27 by the city, it was stated that the permits for the 10th Street property are for a 150-unit hotel, a 9,250 square foot convention center and a 27,000 square foot parking lot - all to be situated on 5.9-acres. The site is currently zoned S3 Shoreline Resort.

According to Shawa, the 10th Street property is now the most viable site for a resort hotel convention center, primarily because of its size and more importantly because of its ocean frontage.

"It virtually requires an oceanfront site to be viable," said Shawa.

According to Shawa, early on in its quest for a convention center, going back to the early 90s, the city talked to property management professionals, who all said the site needed to be in the downtown district, close to other hotels and have an ocean view, which confined sites to just a few possibilities.

The very first oceanfront site which was considered for a convention center was on Seventh Street SW - a 90,000 square foot parcel - which the city purchased from the Wineberg estate in the early 90s.

But this site ended up not being considered, primarily due to unfulfilled expectations. According to Shawa, it was hoped that the Wineberg family, which still owns property east and west of the site, would bring in a hotel and the city would have an adjacent conference center.

"But it just didn't pan out," said Shawa. "They couldn't get anybody [hotel chains] out there and weren't successful in their recruitment efforts, nor was the city - then the property owners on 10th Street expressed an interest."

According to Shawa, all looked hopeful for the 10th Street site through most of the 90s, but then came along the land swap proposal from State Parks and RealVest Corp., which was shot down by both the city and State Parks this summer.

"We were sidetracked well over a year with the RealVest land exchange, which would also have created an available site," said Shawa. "What we need is a minimum of 350 oceanfront feet to be viable. The 10th Street property will provide that."

A viable site is not the only necessary ingredient for bringing a convention center to Long Beach. Also required is convincing a prospective hotel chain or developer that the city's tourism industry will support such a development. Specifically, what is needed is to show that hotel/motel occupancy rates are meaty enough to make a resort hotel/convention center profitable.

According to a two-year survey of local lodging establishments by the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, the average overall occupancy rate for hotels/motels on the Peninsula in both 2000 and 2001 was 36 percent. The survey was completed in early February 2002.

These Visitors Bureau numbers are in sharp contrast to those compiled by Jinneman, Kennedy, and Assoc., hospitality investment advisors in Seattle, who the city hired to study the idea of a resort hotel/convention center in Long Beach.

"The Jinneman and Kennedy report I think is reasonable," said Shawa this summer during the embroiled land swap deal. "It estimates 50 percent occupancy year-round. Most other consultants said it will be around 62 to 64 percent. Jinneman and Kennedy tend to be a little more conservative."

One local business owner last summer at a town meeting took exception to these optimistic Jinneman and Kennedy estimates. Ann Kischner, co-owner of the Shoalwater Restaurant in Seaview, said, "These numbers just fly in the face of recent statistics, which point to some very slow times during the year."

A look at Visitors Bureau numbers for traditionally slow months, such as January, substantiate Kischner's remarks. In January 2000, the average hotel/motel occupancy rate for the Peninsula was only 17 percent; in 2001, for the same month it was 17 percent; and in 2002 this number dropped to 15 percent. The rate is highest in August, when it reaches over 70 percent, with July and September each 20 to 30 percent lower.

At this time, the city is awaiting an updated Jinneman and Kennedy report, which is expected to be completed this month. The updated report will be available for final review by the city council, 10th Street and Seventh Street property owners, other interested parties, as well as the public. Shawa said this updated report focuses on the 10th Street site and is also applicable for the Wineberg/Seventh Street properties.

Whether the updated report will have hotel/motel occupancy rates closer to those gathered by the Visitors Bureau remains to be seen.

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