What began over beers at the Roanoke Tavern in Mercer Island is now the toast of town and state Republican leaders this weekend at the Ocean Shores Convention Center.
The annual Roanoke Conference that begins Friday has grown into the premier Republican event in the state, with at least 500-600 GOP members and their families descending on Ocean Shores for the three-day strategy and policy retreat.
One of the original members, Jim Keough of Seattle, noted the conference pumps about $250,000 each year into the Ocean Shores economy. The Convention Center location, he added, also provides a fitting venue for the event. It’s now blossomed into what the Seattle Times has called the “must-attend event for … Republican leaders” in Washington State.
“When we started the conference five years ago, we wanted some place that was preferably in Western Washington, but off of I-5 because we wanted people to spend the weekend. We didn’t want people just to show up for the conference and then go back home,” Keough explained. “We wanted to be something where we could go out and spend the weekend together, have some fun and intermix.”
Taking a look around the region, the only other place suitable for a conference of over 300 people outside of the Seattle-Tacoma-Puget Sound corridor was the Ocean Shores Convention Center. “There is no other facility in Western Washington that does what the Ocean Shores Convention Center does,” said Keough, a political consultant and former staff member for then-U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton. “It’s perfect for us.”
The concept for the conference is taken from a longtime Republican conference held each year in Oregon known as the Dorchester Conference, which was founded by Bob Packwood in 1965. Packwood invited Republicans from around the state to the Dorchester House in Lincoln City, Ore.
The Ocean Shores conference gets its name from the Roanoke Tavern on Mercer Island where the idea was hatched over beers several years ago. Now in its fifth year, attendance is expected to be as large as 600 this year, with the state’s college Republicans also in attendance.
“We’re kind of reaching the maximum if everybody shows up for the dinner on Saturday night when most of the folks are there,” Keough said.
He acknowledged there have been “issues along the way” with some aspects of the Convention Center, such as a lack of good wireless Internet service several years ago and some past issues with catering service. But those have been taken care of, Keough said: “The good folks there worked with us and everything is positive now, everything is good.“
The Convention Center “has grown when it has needed to grow to meet the needs of their customers,” Keough said.
There have been debates within the Roanoke organizers about other locations, especially if the conference continues to grow. The conference has added an average of 100 new participants each year.
“For the time being, at our current size, the Ocean Shores Convention Center is a great location for us.”
One of the main themes this year is “Women in Republican Leadership.” A featured speaker is U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers of North Carolina, chairwoman of the Republican Women’s Policy Committee and an organization known as the Right Women Right Now. Also featured are Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and Washington state Secretary of State Kim Wyman.
“On one of our panels, we also have a couple of women who are running for the state Legislature this year, and so that is sort of an overriding theme,” Keough said.
The College Republicans also will be doing a panel on Sunday morning to highlight the involvement of youth and “the messages that appeal to them,” he added. Another panel is on improving the image of the party in the media, and issue sessions include the Affordable Care Act, a potential gas tax to fund transportation projects, and long-term energy and economic policies.
For a full schedule of the conference, visit the Roanoke Conference online at: http://www.roanokeconference.org