A conference center should be built along the Astoria waterfront - but for half as much money as architects have estimated it will cost, the conference center task force concluded at a meeting Monday.

The task force, which is an advisory group for the City of Astoria and the Port of Astoria, met to evaluate where the project stands and decide what the next steps should be, said its chairman, Terry Finklein. "It's come to the point where we've got plans, we've got momentum," he said, but "we have escalating costs as well."

The architects from OPSIS who are working on the project have said that the conference center, with its distinctive architecture, picture windows overlooking the river and rooms designed for functionality, will cost $5.9 million. That doesn't include fixtures, furniture and equipment, which would cost $600,000 to $800,000 more.

But the Astor-West Urban Renewal District, which was set up to fund construction of the center, only allows for $4.9 million to go to the project, and neither the city nor the port can spring for the rest.

A room tax is funding the design and start-up costs, but to pay these costs this year and next, the city would have to borrow from other sources. As a result, the budget for the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce would fall from $216,510 this fiscal year to $182,271 next fiscal year.

And the Astoria Lodging Association is concerned that the increased room tax its members are collecting is funding a project without firm plans or start dates, said its chairman, Erhard Gross.

"I think as a task force, an advisory group, we really do have to reassess our targets," said Finklein, who later added that "I'm either for moving the project forward or killing the project," saying he would rather kill it than keep postponing it.

Others expressed concerns.

Skip Hauke, executive director of the chamber, said that the area has been discovered, and not just in the context of Lewis and Clark. But he emphasized that the city has to continue its tourism momentum or the industry will go backward.

He said his main concern was that "we are not spending nearly enough money as we should be to promote our area." Although he would love to see a conference center, and the chamber will work with what it has, he said he didn't know what it would do if it didn't have the money to market the conference center.

The lodging group's vice chairman, Dave Weber, said he thought the building was going to be value engineered to bring the costs down: "If it's a million dollars more, we've got to decide if we're going to spend a million dollars more or cut back on the project." He added that he would be reluctant to risk the city's advertising and promotions budget on the conference center, and expressed concern that if the project fails, the only way to fund it will be through room taxes supplied by the lodgings.

Robert "Jake" Jacob, owner of the Cannery Pier Hotel, said that to cut down on costs, the group should take the ideas and budget to contractors who actually build buildings, as opposed to the architects, and see what they can come up with.

But port Deputy Director Bill Cook said that he would hate to scrap all the work that OPSIS has done so far, saying that considerable effort went in to designing the building to be functional and efficient.

"To start over again at this point really is foolish," he said, adding later that perhaps they should stick with the floor plan the architects suggested, but try to bring costs down for the actual building itself. "Maybe we just put a new dress on the design."

The task force ultimately agreed that Cook and Astoria Community Development Director Todd Scott should go back to OPSIS, and see what the architects can do for around $3 million. This figure will leave room for inflation and unexpected costs so that the final price tag would be around the $4.9 million allocated in the Urban Renewal District.

"You build what you think you can afford," said Hauke. "Maybe it doesn't have all the whistles and bells, but we have a conference center we can bring people to."

The task force will meet in early December to hear the architects' revised proposal and decide where to go from there.

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