Council Votes to Take Over Conference Center

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The Hermiston City Council voted to have the city take over management of the Hermiston Conference Center Tuesday night in front of a packed house filled with supporters of the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce who voiced concern about a proposal to move them into “a windowless basement.”

The vote came during a special council meeting to discuss the future of the conference center. Tuesday’s vote will have a direct impact on the chamber which currently operates the center and has its offices there, as well.

The council’s action allows the city to further develop a plan to have the Parks and Recreation Department move into the conference center and manage it. It also allows the city to offer the chamber the use of the basement of the Carnegie Building at essentially no charge. The city plans to spend $125,000 to renovate the building’s lower level.

The Carnegie Building is currently home to the city’s Building Department and Hermiston Energy Services. The plan calls for the Building Department to move to city hall. Hermiston Assistant City Manager Mark Morgan said it makes sense to have both the Planning Department and Building Department in the same building.

The city intends for the parks department to take over management of the conference center in 2018. The chamber will continue to operate it through the rest of the year.

Morgan said the move is designed to make better use of the conference center and put more of an emphasis on holding community events at the center with larger, more regional events taking place at the Eastern Oregon Trade & Event Center (EOTEC).

Since the opening of EOTEC, a number of events that have traditionally been held at the conference center have moved over to EOTEC. As a result, event revenue at the conference center is down 35 percent through March of this year.

Morgan said by having the parks department run the conference center, the city would have more control over scheduling multiple events at both facilities at the same time.

Hermiston resident Anne Emmons was the first member of the public to speak and she said she was excited to see the conference center be developed for more community events and possibly be turned into an arts center.

“That would pull the community together,” she said.

The rest of those who spoke, however, focused on what they felt was a sign of disrespect by the city toward the chamber.

Hermiston resident Bryan Wolfe said he was disappointed the city hadn’t fully vetted the plan with the public prior to Tuesday’s vote. He also said the city shouldn’t stick the chamber “in a windowless basement.”

Pat Hart echoed Wolfe’s sentiment.

“I don’t believe you’ll find another progressive city in Oregon that would put a chamber in a basement,” he said. “The chamber helps the city grow and the city should support them.”

Morgan said there are windows in the building’s basement.

Chamber Board member Bob Green suggested the city table the vote and spend more time getting input from the public. He also wants the city to be completely transparent about its future plans for the conference center. Does it plan to sell the center down the road? Will only parks department activities be allowed to use the center?

Councilor John Kirwan said the “conference center isn’t going anywhere. We’ve heard lots of misinformation about the conference center. It’s always going to be there. It’s a community asset.”

Chamber Board Chairman Josh Burns said there is a strained relationship between the city and the chamber and he would like the city to get more public input before making a decision.

Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann said the move by the city is not a reflection on the chamber, who he believes is doing an “awesome” job managing the conference center.

“This has more to do with the future of the facilities we have,” he said. “We don’t have unlimited resources. We’re charged with trying to balance our resources with the needs of the community.”

Drotzmann said the city has chosen not to put a bond measure out to fund a new community center because it did not want to compete against the upcoming school bond measure. He also disputed that using the conference center for parks department activities shuts out the rest of the community.

“The parks department is community usage,” he said. “It (the conference center) will still be used to host many of the events that have been held there.”

Councilor Doug Smith said moving the chamber into the Carnegie Building isn’t a slap in the face to the chamber. On the contrary, he said.

“I see the Carnegie Building as the most important building in town,” he said, noting that it is just one of five buildings in Hermiston to be on the National Registry of Historic Buildings. “It could turn out to be the crown jewel of Hermiston.”

The chamber is not obligated to move into the Carnegie Building, but if it chooses not to, it may have a difficult time finding another location offering free rent.

After the council voted unanimously to begin plans to take over the conference center, Drotzmann said the issue is far from over.

“This merely starts the process,” he said. “We’re open to more conversations with the chamber and the public.”