Plans for a public conference center along Astoria's waterfront should be scrapped.

That was what the Conference Center Task Force recommended in a letter sent today to the city of Astoria and the Port of Astoria.

Instead, the task force "wholeheartedly" supports the development of conference facilities in the existing Red Building, just to the west of the Astoria Bridge.

"Facing the possibility of having to subsidize (conference center operations), and also having the opportunity with two independent entrepreneurs stepping forward with developing additional space, the Conference Center Task Force felt it would be very prudent to support the independent development of that space," said task force chairman Terry Finklein.

Shawn Helligso and Ryan Davis, who are developing the Red Building, were taking out walls to open up the 6,000-square-foot second floor and thought that it would be a great space for something other than the offices that were originally planned, Helligso said.

"We wanted to find a use that would use the whole space and not break it up," he said. "We thought the building was a unique building and just wanted people to enjoy it."

They knew the proposed public conference center was having funding issues, and approached the task force with an idea for a meeting space in the Red Building that could hold 275 people with catering capabilities.

The task force shared information it had gathered about a possible conference center, Finklein said, and once members saw the developers were committed to the project they endorsed it as an alternative to a public facility.

Helligso said that they already have a handful of bookings for October and hope to be ready.

"The specific goals of the task force were to be an economic engine for the community during the off-season in attracting events and programs to the community that would help the lodging industry, the retail industry, the restaurateurs - and much of that has been accomplished," Finklein said. "With the leadership that Shawn Helligso and Ryan Davis are showing by developing the Red Building, I think that will be further enhanced."

Things have changed since the task force has been evaluating a possible conference center, said Skip Hauke, a member of the task force and executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce. Other meeting spaces have been built in Astoria during the last five years, he said, and although the task force was designing a center that could hold 500 people, a feasibility study suggested that most of the conferences the city would draw would be of fewer than 200 people.

"How expensive does that last 300 people get?" Hauke said.

Organizers who bring conferences to the North Coast do so for the ambiance and history of the area, he said.

"I'd rather go into a conference center that is an old net loft, and sitting on pilings over the river, than to go into a brand-new, stainless-steel, fiberglass whatever," Hauke said. "It's going to be a lot more Astoria."

He added that the task force looked at publicly-operated conference centers of a similar size at other locations and none were breaking even because of the subsidies required to operate them.

The conference facility in the Red Building won't be built with city, port or Astor West urban renewal dollars, said Finklein, but the task force is recommending that the Urban Renewal funds be used to improve and enhance the Riverwalk and public space near the Red Building, in the Uniontown area.

A lot of people spent a lot of time focusing on the idea of the conference center, said port Executive Director Peter Gearin. But much has changed during five years, with more visitors throughout the year, and it raised questions about necessity of a conference center, he said.

The task force's recommendation is a positive step, Gearin said: "People are forthright enough to say lets be responsible about this thing and not push something that no longer applies."


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