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Bill Virgin: Who will fill up all that space?

The Puyallup Fair may last for just 17 days once a year, but thinking about it, as recent developments suggest, can be a year-round activity.

Not thinking about the agricultural displays and rides and food booths and arts-and-crafts exhibits and all the other stuff that goes into the fair itself, although no doubt lots of people have those features on their minds, especially with opening day less than a month away.

The bigger, more long-lasting fair-related activity, though, is the discussion over what to do with the fairgrounds, and what the future holds for the 170 or so acres as well as the surrounding neighborhoods and the city itself.

As recently reported by The News Tribune’s Steve Maynard, fair executives, the city and residents are now tussling over a proposal to change the zoning designation for 219 acres to “events center.” That change, fair management says, would provide greater flexibility for adding facilities that would expand not just the September fair but year-round activities.

However the discussions and disagreements are resolved, that won’t be the biggest challenge for the fair, thorny though the debate may be. Nor will the planning, financing and construction of whatever facilities fair executives decide upon be the most difficult task.

The biggest potential opportunity or headache (or both) will be landing events to fill the fair’s calendar and facilities.

There’s considerable logic in the fair’s strategy. Adding more rent-paying tenants to the fair’s calendar generates revenue to pay fixed costs, supplementing what comes in during the two-and-a-half-week-long fair itself. Why not put those idle facilities to work?

Indeed, the Puyallup Fair’s own calendar reflects an extensive schedule of the spring fair, concerts, commencement ceremonies, races, trade shows, sales, equestrian shows and exhibitions for every interest and hobby imaginable – trains, guns, dolls and teddy bears, woodcarving, gems and minerals, quilting, to cite but a few of the events slated for the next few months.

It’s not surprising that fair management is thinking about ways to land even more events.

The problem is, so is everyone else.

And in the Puget Sound region, there’s a lot of everyone else. You might have thought of “If you build it, they will come” as a now-cliched movie line, but around here it was taken as a long-term strategy. Between hotel meeting rooms, conference and convention centers (Tacoma and Bremerton in 2004, Lynnwood in 2005), arenas, event centers, performance halls, concert venues and any other semi-open space to put a stage, a lectern, an exhibit booth or a few folding chairs, we are awash in space.

More is coming. All that new casino resort space, such as the Tulalip complex in Marysville or the more recently opened Snoqualmie, means more event and meeting space. Seattle’s convention center wants to expand. Bellevue is raising money for an arts performance center to rival the big theaters in Seattle.

Those spaces aren’t entirely interchangeable. You wouldn’t put a an indoor motorcycle race, an October event scheduled for the Puyallup Fair’s Paulhamus Arena, in a hotel conference room (although, come to think of it, the entertainment possibilities of such a combination are intriguing). A small sales-training meeting does not need to rent the entire Tacoma Dome.

But events and tenants can and do move. Palmer/Wirfs relocated its antique shows from the Tacoma Dome to the Puyallup fairgrounds. Lost in the furor over the Sonics’ departure was the news that the Seattle Thunderbirds hockey team left KeyArena for Kent’s ShoWare Center. Boat shows, home and garden shows, car shows, all have multiple options for where they can set up shop.

The addition of space and the resulting competition would have been problematic for everyone trying to get enough business to live on in good times.

Add to that the recession – businesses aren’t spending for meetings, travel and exhibitions the way they were, and consumers don’t have the money to spend on concerts, sporting events and other activities. Add to that some long-term shifts in certain segments – there are fewer megastar music acts that can fill the Tacoma Dome or KeyArena for one night, much less multiple evenings.

What you get is a surplus of event and meeting space that is going to take an immense recovery to absorb. It will likely have to be the demand side that grows in order to close the gap, because the supply isn’t likely to be cut. Every community of any size wants a large meeting facility of its own, and is sure that the market will bear just one more addition to the inventory of event space.

All of which means that debates like the one playing out now in Puyallup will be repeated in communities throughout the region. Those who live near a facility like the fairgrounds will raise arguments about the need for expansion and the additional traffic that expansion will attract; so will those who have to pay for expansion.

Venue owners and managers have exactly the opposite worry: the traffic that doesn’t show up because the people who constitute that customer traffic are attending somebody else’s event somewhere else – and plunking admission dollars into someone else’s pocket in some other community.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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