|By Jeff McDonald, The Bulletin, Bend,
Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Business News
Nov. 26, 2006 - An upscale convention center, first delayed by a slowing economy then by a lengthy approval process, is set to open Dec. 2 on the banks of the Deschutes River more than 20 years after it was first envisioned.
Wayne Purcell, co-owner and operations manager of the Riverhouse Hotel & Convention Center, and his family first planned expansion of the convention center in the early 1980s, but 20 percent interest rates, high unemployment and a lagging timber industry forced them to put the project on hold.
The family dusted off the plans in 2003, but faced mounting opposition from neighbors and other groups who feared expansion would cause traffic problems on the Mt. Washington Drive bridge and mar views of the river.
Opponents of the plan dropped their appeal last year when it became clear the City Council would approve the project. Bridge fears were alleviated by a widening completed early this year.
The Purcells broke ground last October on the 30,000-square-foot convention center, which, by design, does not stand out from the road.
"We wanted to make it blend in with its environment," Purcell said. "The result is a freestanding structure that's unique to Central Oregon."
The building is located across the Mt. Washington Drive bridge from the Riverhouse hotel.
More than 100 workers are still putting the finishing touches on the project that began in October 2005, according to Mike Taylor, general manager of Kirby Nagelhout Construction Co., the project's general contractor.
The 30,000 square feet of meeting space in the new convention center, combined with 6,000 square feet of meeting space inside the adjacent Riverhouse Hotel, will make the Bend location Oregon's fourth largest meeting space in a hotel setting and the largest outside of Portland, Purcell said.
He and his family own the hotel and convention center and River's Edge Golf Course. They also developed the River's Edge community at the north end of town on the Deschutes River.
The family invested more than $10 million of private money and roughly 26 years of planning into the project, he said.
"We wanted to control our own destiny," Purcell said. "This helped us do the facility the way we wanted to do it."
Tourism officials say Riverhouse's convention business could boost the region's $471 million tourism industry with increased business midweek from visitors who typically spend more money and stay longer than leisure travelers.
Within three years, the center will add roughly $300,000 in room taxes annually, which are raised through a percentage of hotel receipts and collected by the city of Bend to promote the tourism industry, said Ron Botts, director of sales at the Riverhouse.
The city generated about $3.1 million in room taxes from July 1, 2005, through June 30, 2006, according to the Bend Visitor & Convention Bureau.
"We're going to generate a lot of business that's not coming here now," Purcell said. "There are a lot of places that serve between 100 and 250 people, but there's no place in Central Oregon that has a true convention center" that is free-standing.
The new convention center will be able to host 1,370 people for a sit-down dinner and will be a draw for large groups on business travel, Botts said.
The Riverhouse can seat 1,820 people for meetings when all its facilities are being used, including those at the hotel, Botts said.
Sunriver Resort, which has about half as much meeting space as the new Riverhouse convention center, will compete directly during winter for Oregon-based businesses, but hasn't noticed a significant drop in advance bookings yet, said Nancy Devine, vice president of sales and marketing.
During the summer months, the resort will not compete head-on with the Riverhouse because Sunriver attracts customers looking for the destination resort experience, she said.
"We typically compete with the high-end destination resorts, not a city hotel," she said. "It's a completely different experience."
Riverhouse's convention center will open on Saturday with three local businesses' holiday parties. Several local companies have already booked their holiday parties this month, including St. Charles Medical Center, Bend Broadband and AmeriTitle, Botts said.
Additionally, the Oregon Farm Bureau booked a 180-person convention for one week beginning Dec. 4, Botts said.
The 16,000-square-foot ballroom, on the main floor, can be divided into 10 separate meeting rooms or one uninterrupted conference area that, without pillars, allows unobstructed sightlines.
"It's the foundation of the entire ballroom," Botts said. "We weren't going to do it with the pillars. From an engineering standpoint, it took some doing."
The center also features acoustical air walls rated for sound-blocking and deafening, audio-visual equipment built into every room and a computerized lighting system that has different modes for myriad occasions, he said.
There's also a 500-square-foot boardroom that will be used for executive board meetings, Botts said.
On the lower level, there's a 14,000-square-foot exhibit hall that can be used for large events like trade shows and boat shows.
"Our market niche will be quality," Purcell said, pointing to the approximately 2,500-square-foot main lobby area where cascading waterfalls and ponderosa pine wooden trusses accent the scene. The trees for the trusses and much of the stone that comprise the 30-foot fireplace were gathered on-site, Purcell said.
"The added features all cost extra money, but were all included to benefit the guests," he said. "People want nicer-tier, not just size."
The convention center also will have the latest technology components, Botts said.
"The building will be completely wireless and allow a speaker to employ any technology device at his or her disposal," he said. "LCD monitors will drop out of the ceiling."
The added features and the convention center's larger size will set it apart from other convention centers in Bend, said Michelle Marquis, director of sales and marketing at Mount Bachelor Village Resort.
"For groups that they're going after, they're not going to have any competition," she said. "Bend as a whole has never been able to go after a group over 200 people. They're positioned to do really well."
The convention center will fill a niche in the visitor industry, said Alana Audette, president and CEO of the Central Oregon Visitors Association.
"It will provide a convention space that we really needed," she said.
"This will benefit all businesses throughout the community by bringing larger groups."
Central Oregon's tourism industry is traditionally weaker in the nonsummer months, but the convention center will attract the kind of business that usually books during nonpeak months, she said.
"It's such a critical component because it helps sustain the industry during the shoulder season," she said. "Group business is less likely to cancel plans. It's secure business."
Dan Despotopulos, CEO of the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center, acknowledged the new convention center will boost regional visitation.
About 10 percent to 15 percent of his center's business comes from groups, he said.
But most of his larger-sized events ... including monster-truck rallies, motocross competitions and bull riding ... wouldn't compete with the Riverhouse convention center, he said.
"We also do banquets and large parties, but we don't try to compete with the private sector," he said. "We'll get a lot of the fallout. When someone goes to book at the Riverhouse and they're booked, they'll turn to us."
Audette agreed that other businesses that have convention centers -- including Sunriver Resort, Black Butte Ranch and Eagle Crest Resort -- will benefit from the new convention center because it will raise the region's profile.
"It will benefit everyone who has meeting space," she said. "A meeting planner with a large group will call the Riverhouse and if they're booked, they will ask what else is available. It gives planners a larger choice and better options when considering Central Oregon."
Central Oregon's convention business has changed over the past six years, Audette said.
"You've seen significant improvement and expansion throughout the region in meeting and convention space," she said.
Mt. Bachelor Village and Seventh Mountain Resort, both west of Bend, have built and redone their convention and meeting space; Sunriver Resort has a new facility; Eagle Crest remodeled its convention center; and Black Butte Ranch's convention center is undergoing renovation, she said.
"They're all very different," she said. "It makes them very competitive. We're not comparing apples to apples. Meeting planners have very definite needs. They all benefit when they make improvements."
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