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City, supporters interested in DHDC

8/14/2014

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

Downtown Hays Development Corp.'s supporters have rallied around the group after the Hays City Commission decided to use the Sept. 4 work session to reassess its funding relationship with the group.

Commissioner Ron Mellick said at the Aug. 7 work session he wanted all five commissioners present to discuss the DHDC and its 2015 subsidy request. The city's proposed budget has $53,655 allocated for the group.  

"We can discuss how we're going to spend that money," Mellick said during the session. "Whether it is distributed to the DHDC or if we decide to spend that in other directions, probably for downtown."

Mellick declined further comment.

If commissioners approve a new funding structure, half of the subsidy could be taken from the city's general fund and half from the transient guest tax. Commissioners also will consider keeping the transient guest tax at its current level.

Commissioner Shaun Musil questioned the DHDC's role during the same work session.

"I know they do a lot of events downtown, which I think is great, and I don't want to see that go away," Musil said. "But I think we need to have a little bit clearer picture."

Musil said he wants the DHDC to provide a vision outlined by year, goals and where its money goes. He hopes sustainable businesses can be installed downtown that people often frequent.

"I think they've done a decent job of revitalizing downtown," he said. "There's definitely a lot of people that think they have, but there's also a lot of people who think they haven't."

Traci Stanford, newly appointed DHDC executive director, said she understood Musil's confusion because the group has a broad purpose. Stanford's daily duties revolve around new businesses, commercial expansions and closures, special events and community complaints.

"I wasn't shocked because we do so much, it's hard to put into a sentence," Stanford said.

The director appreciated the opportunity to have dialogue with the commissioners and present the group's plan for the future. Cutting off the DHDC's funding would have significant consequences, she said.

"I think the fallout would be huge. Everything that we do would cease to exist," Stanford said. "Now, that being said, I think this community supports this organization enough. They would fight to keep this organization here."

Questions surrounding her group did not deter her from taking the director job.

"I would not have taken this position back if I did not think this organization needed to exist. I did just have a child, and she is the most important thing to me," she said.

Musil and his fellow Downtown Hays Market vendors would be affected if the city pulls its support from the DHDC, she said.

"The market has grown so much. ... If we were to lose our funding, that would be gone," Stanford said. "Nobody's ever came to step up to control or host that market. I would never want to see that disappear."

Stanford suggested DHDC complements downtown businesses.

"Our goal is to bring the people down there, and their goal is to keep the people coming back into their businesses," she said. "They go hand in hand because they can't do all the work, and we can't do all the work."

The city has awarded DHDC $762,092 in subsidies since 2000, according to city records. The group averages $17,200 in annual donations from businesses and community members.

Stanford said the city has seen a return on its investment with the rise in downtown's sales tax collections through the years. The group's efforts contributed to the funds increasing from approximately $300,000 to $1.2 million.

Not all of DHDC's work is as evident to the public eye as the events it organizes. It identifies brick-and-mortar projects, helps screen potential businesses and undertakes projects.

One endeavor is the railroad corridor/pavilion. Although city staff has ceased communication with Union Pacific because it was unresponsive, DHDC continues to advocate for the project and reserve approximately $4,000 in its budget for it. The nonprofit has $84,675 in restricted reserves for special projects/operations and $12,974 in unrestricted reserves.

Stanford said there are distinct differences between the DHDC, Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development and Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau. The groups collaborate for each other's expertise.

"They could not absorb the work that we do as well. If they could, it would have been done by now," she said. "Downtown needs an advocate all for its own, and that's what we're here for."

Sabrina William, director of the Management Development Center at Fort Hays State University, served as DHDC's director from 2001 to 2011. The confusion about DHDC's role might be attributed to the fact volunteer-driven groups often focus on the volunteers, she said.

"Sometimes, I think, when we don't brag about ourselves as far as what we're accomplishing and what we're doing, I think it's easy for people to not hear the message," William said.

The former director did not offer a solution for DHDC's funding source, but she believes the city should contribute.

"Is there one magic funding formula that's going to make a success and everybody's going to know what's happening and who's going to take credit for it? No," she said. "It totally, absolutely, 100 percent should be a combined effort with city involvement."

The nonprofit should be sustained to keep a "downtown voice" in the community's discussions, William said.

Terry Kinderknecht, owner of TK's Smokehaus at 110 W. 11th, said it would be a mistake for the city to deny funding.

"Honestly, I think that's a terrible idea. They're behind the scenes for most of the general population here. But for business owners downtown, they're huge," Kinderknecht said. "They've got great events, they've got great ideas, and all they really want to do is help grow downtown Hays. I think they're doing a phenomenal job."

The restaurant owner is cooking food for the second annual Core2Campus event Aug. 21.

Joslyn Brungardt, owner of the Design Center, McIntyre Plumbing, Heating & Air and the Paisley Pear and its cafe, said the DHDC adds structure for the district. It provides feedback and creates better camaraderie.

"We need an organization that creates a little bit of leadership. It helps organize the downtown community. If it's done correctly, which it has been in the past, I feel like a lot of good things come out of it."