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By Helen Silvis of The Skanner News
Published: 14 July 2013

Ed Potillo (L)  and Dean Phelus

As Metro pushes forward with plans to site a 600-bed hotel near Portland's Convention Center, Travel Portland brought together a group of convention planners to deliver a message: Portland needs a headquarters hotel.

"If you build it they will come," said Ed Potillo, conference and membership director for the National Alliance of Black School Educators. "We've talked to other convention planners who bring groups larger than mine and they want to come to Portland. And they won't just use the Convention Center hotel; they will fill it - and then some. They'll use other hotels too, including on the other side of the river.

"But if you don't built it, they won't come at all."

Metro's plan would build a $197 million Grand Hyatt Hotel close to the Convention Center. According to Metro's figures, Hyatt Hotels and Minnesota-based Mortensen Development group would invest around $120 million in the project. The Oregon Legislature has approved $10 million in state Lottery funding. Metro and the Portland Development Commission would each contribute $4 million in grants and loans. Another $60 million would come from a Metro bond, to be paid off over 30 years with a lodging tax.  

Portland City Commissioners will vote on the lodging tax proposal in August.

A group called the Coalition for Fair Budget Priorities is opposing the plan, arguing that it's nothing but a giveaway of taxpayer money to a private corporation.

"If this headquarters hotel was a good bet, it would be funded and built by the private sector with no public subsidy involved," wrote Paige Richardson in an op-ed for the Portland Tribune.  "But the truth is that this 'if you build it, they will come,' convention center hotel strategy has repeatedly proven to fail. In markets from Phoenix to Baltimore, similar convention hotel projects have underperformed and taxpayers have been stuck with the bill while developers and landowners receive enormous windfalls."

But supporters say the hotel will bring business to the entire city, including to other hotels. And they say cities like Denver and Fort Worth, Texas, are examples of cities that dramatically increased their conventions business after building headquarters hotels.

Potillo is one of a group of 30 convention planners and travel experts who advise Travel Portland on how to attract more visitors to the city. He organizes an annual convention that brings together 3,000 to 3,500 educators from schools, colleges and universities all across the United States, Canada, and beyond.

"We have been looking at Portland," he said. "But the one thing that keeps us from coming to this city is that it doesn't have a headquarters hotel."

It matters, Potillo said, because what people want from a convention are networking opportunities in an intimate and easily accessible environment. His events include 125 breakfasts, lunches, dinners and mixers where educators can network. But they can't do that unless they have a central gathering place.

Dean Phelus agrees. Phelus organizes the American Alliance of Museums' annual meeting, which brings together from five to six thousand people from 50 different countries and every state in the union. The last time he chose Portland was in 2004, he says, when he used eight different hotels.

"We're really waiting for this headquarters hotel to be built before we come back to Portland," he said. "We want the headquarters hotel. We need the headquarters hotel. What I'm looking for is: 'Am I able to promote a greater sense of community and intimacy among my group?'"

Potillo and Phelus say Portland is a dream destination in many ways and they can easily rattle off the reasons why: No sales tax; Near Canada; Great book stores; Close to water. Having a range of differently priced restaurants and stores in the same neighborhood.

"Portland is a fabulous city," Potillo said. "It's got natural beauty. It's rich in culture. It has live theater, performing arts and museums. It's pedestrian friendly and easy to navigate. And it's got a great food scene –one of the best in the USA –and I've been to just about every city in the country."

Brian McCartin, VP for convention and tourism sales with Travel Portland, said the advisory group has also given useful criticism.

"We realized we should be asking the customers what they think of Portland as a destination. It's really an opportunity to advise us and we asked them to be brutally candid," he said.

The group told Travel Portland that it needed to improve its website.  And it criticized Portland for having too few taxis. So last year, Travel Portland changed its website and supported the expansion of Portland's taxi permits to include Union Cabs.

"To see those changes: that put a smile on our faces," said Potillo, "It may seem small, but it's significant to us. We hope you get this headquarters hotel because we'd like to come here."

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