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Saturday, January 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lynnwood taps convention expert to help plan center

Seattle Times Snohomish County reporter

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Lynnwood has snared the man who brainstormed Seattle's Washington State Convention and Trade Center to help launch its own planned $32 million conference center.

Hartly Kruger, 70, ran the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau from 1969 to 1982. In that role he successfully spread his conviction that Seattle was at a competitive disadvantage with other cities because it lacked a facility dedicated to major conventions.

By the time the Seattle convention center opened in 1988, Kruger had already returned to his native Spokane, where he ran the Spokane Area Convention and Visitors Bureau from 1985 to 2000. During that period, visitor spending leaped to above $500 million per year, up from $215 million when he arrived.

Now Kruger is on a three-month contract, at $2,800 a month, with the South Snohomish County Public Facilities District (PFD), which plans to build a 35,000-square-foot conference center on 196th Street Southwest.

"I'm having a ball with this," said Kruger, who is doing community-relations work for the project while also helping architects with design concepts.

"I think Lynnwood has an incredible opportunity with this little project," he said. "They will be able to build next to (Interstate 5), with easy access and egress, just north of Seattle.

"They will be able to locate a lot of conventions and meetings that will like a place they can afford more readily than Seattle and Bellevue and Spokane."

The conference center will be much smaller than those venues, holding up to 500 people when set up for a multi-room convention. When configured as an auditorium, it will serve 950.

Opening is set for September 2004.

Lynnwood is taking advantage of a 1999 state law that allows city and county public-facilities districts to collect a 0.033 percent sales tax, or 3.3 cents on every $100 purchase, for 25 years. That would be subtracted from the existing state sales taxes, so total sales taxes would not change.

Construction bonds needed to build the project will be repaid with those sales-tax revenues, estimated at $530,000 a year, combined with hotel-motel tax revenues, projected at $560,000 a year.

The conference center is a key element of Lynnwood's city-center project, a mixed-use downtown intended to replace a big chunk of the city's sprawling strip malls and box-style retail stores.

The PFD is wrangling over the purchase price for the former Alderwood Cadillac dealership on 196th, which closed several years ago. The shell of that building, just east of 40th Avenue West, would be extensively remodeled to create the conference center.

Neighboring properties, including the Alderwood Village strip mall, are being purchased to accommodate other developments, including an exhibition hall and a parking garage. The mall sale, which includes a U.S. post office on 40th, is expected to close next week.

Existing tenants — including Chuck E. Cheese, Long's Drug Store and Cucina! Presto! will remain in business until the land is needed, perhaps in five to 10 years, said Mike Bailey, city administrative-services director.

Michael Echelbarger, chairman of the PFD, said landing Kruger was quite a coup.

"If somebody had to identify who is Mr. Convention Center in Washington or the Northwest, I would have named him," he said. "Here we are, this fledgling little (PFD) getting started, and we hit it right at the point when he has retired. We're really pleased."

Diane Brooks can be reached at 206-464-2567, dbrooks@seattletimes.com.

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