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Why Renton City Comic Con left Renton this year

Cosplayers attend Renton City Comic Con in 2017. (Courtesy of Renton City Comic Con)

Renton City Comic Con won’t be in Renton this year. It will be in Tukwila, instead. Organizers say there is a lack of city support for their pop culture event. Renton officials argue otherwise.

But I find that the best way to explain why Renton City Comic Con, aka RenCon, is not in its namesake city this year, is to talk about “Footloose.”

Ya know, “Footloose.” The 1984 movie. Kevin Bacon played a Chicago kid who moved to a small town. He loved dancing and music. The small town didn’t like this modern, youthful vibe and banned dancing. It didn’t fit with their local identity. Kevin Bacon pushed back in an attempt to get a high school prom, but city officials weren’t having any of it. His solution: take his dance just over the border into the next town, where they allowed dancing. That is where he held his prom.

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And just to drive the metaphor home, Kevin Bacon’s character in “Footloose” was named “Ren.”

That’s the short version of why RenCon is in Tukwila in 2018. The longer version involves issues that nearly every Western Washington community is struggling with right now. The population is dramatically booming and that is changing communities. How do these communities maintain their character under the weight of all this growth?

RenCon

RenCon — what most people call Renton City Comic Con — is a small pop culture convention emerging from the communities south of Seattle — something outside of the mammoth Emerald City Comic Con. It’s now three years into this endeavor. But it has found itself in a tug-of-war of local politics. Organizers argue that beyond various reasons that led to the convention leaving town this year, a lack of local political support has been a significant factor.

“Renton is a blue collar town,” said Ben Andrews with RenCon. “It’s the Boeing guys. And it’s a World War II coal mining town …. Right now, Renton is really struggling to find its next identity.”

“I would say that if you were to look at the core constituency, the 20,000 people who are third generation from Renton, born and raised – yes, hell yes, (this convention) is a little out there for them,” he said.

RenCon feels as if it is on the outside of the city, trying to build a community event with cosplay, comics, science and all sorts of nerdery. The term “nerd” is rarely used negatively these days, rather, it’s gone mainstream (Marvel and Star Wars films are among the most successful and comic cons draw hundreds of thousands of attendees).

“Renton has been changing drastically, and very fast,” said Preeti Shridhar, spokesperson for the City of Renton.

“There’s comic con which is definitely a reflection of the young, the new, the whole different look of Renton …” she said, noting that the city is not the same as it was in years past. “Are some people seeing that difference and noticing it’s not the same. Yes. Is everybody embracing it. Hopefully. Are some people taking a little but more time, maybe. I think it’s happening in a nice way.”

Funding and support

So how exactly is there a lack of support in Renton? Conventions like this are expensive. RenCon’s first event in 2016 cost $80,000. They tightened the budget in the second year and spent $50,000 — patching together a network of local support and sponsorships.

The city helped in 2017 by providing lodging tax dollars (the same controversial money that King County is dealing with regarding Safeco Field). It’s only one part of funding, but a hefty chunk. This year, the convention was denied when it asked for $30,000 from the city. To RenCon organizers, it represents a lack of support from city leaders.

“It’s totally a lack of support,” Andrews said.

“It all happened in a very bad, and frustrating, ugly way,” he said. “We didn’t know we were not going to get funding for a long time. And we were shocked when it happened.”

Renton city officials would say otherwise. Lodging tax funds come from a 1 percent tax on hotel room sales. Cities collect them and hand them out to events that further encourage hotel stays, bringing in tourism, etc.

“I think it really was that we had so many different applications, so it was a big ask, it was a complex ask, but it was a hard decision to make,”Shridhar said, who is also a member of Renton’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee.

RenCon did not properly prove that their event would further contribute to this tax, what officials call “heads-in-beds.”

“We dropped the ball on our side and didn’t document it correctly,” Andrews said. “We had doubled in size … if we would have done our side properly, we would have known how many heads we put in beds … I would say that is more than half the reason we didn’t get funded.”

While Renton’s Lodging Tax Advisory Committee was willing to take a chance on the convention in 2017, it didn’t see the proof it needed to justify $30,000 in 2018. The City of Renton gets about $275,000 in lodging taxes each year. It got 15 applications for 2018 events, adding up to much more than it has to give out. Next door, the City of Tukwila gets nearly $800,000 in lodging taxes each year.

RenCon goes to Tukwila

It wasn’t just funding. One building RenCon uses for its convention is not available this year. With the lodging tax hit, and the venue issue, organizers looked elsewhere. The solution came from a connection in Tukwila. Plus, while Andrew says RenCon could be “out there” for some in Renton, it was welcomed in Tukwila.

“It seemed like something that fell within our brand strategy to promote the city,” said Brandon Miles with the City of Tukwila. “We really want to be a family friendly destination. We want to be an inclusive community for visitors. And we want to be a place that when people go back, they talk about how fun it was to be in Tukwila … RenCon completely fits within that brand.”

Miles said that the city also considered the number of people RenCon could bring into town, what it calls “feet on the street.” RenCon could bring between 2,000-3,000 people in two days. Tukwila and the Seattle Southside Regional Tourism Authority each gave RenCon $10,000 in funding. Tukwila also provided the convention a storefront in Southcenter Mall to promote the event. And it gave advertising space on its big-screen banner at the mall.

The convention is now looking to prove something.

“My target is the con curious,” Andrews said. “Not even the 100,000 who go to Emerald City Comic Con. My target is the people who always thought about going to Emerald City Comic Con, but they aren’t going to pay $100, and $50 for parking, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 100,000 people. I believe I have between 10,000 and 20,000 of those people between the Tukwila, Renton, Auburn, Kent, Burien, and SeaTac. I’m going to find out real soon if I’m right or wrong.”

RenCon 2018 is Sept. 15-16 at Hotel Interurban in Tukwila.

This story was originally reported on the NW NERD Podcast.

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