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City eyes convention center in Hays

1/13/2014

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

A convention center might join the frontier train and influx of Volga-Germans on the list of catalysts that have sparked progress in Hays.

Aaron White, executive director for the Ellis County Coalition of Economic Development, said a new hub for events could be built on a 3-acre plot south of Holiday Inn Express Hotel and Suites in Hays. The 20,000-square-foot building would hold approximately 500 people at tables in a full banquet and feature a full-size kitchen.

Although the design still is tentative, the project has a projected $8 million price tag. The coalition would use a subsidiary group, Ellis County Development Corp., to own the building, and Fort Hays State University would operate the facility.

The Hays City Commission could consider two revenue streams to pay for the construction.

A community improvement tax district could be established to add a special tax at Walmart, restaurants and hotels north of the restaurant and similar businesses along Vine south of the interstate. The tax might be between half of a percent to 1 percent.

The bed tax, which already is applied on hotel bills in Hays, also could be used. Funds from it now go toward subsidizing the Convention and Visitors Bureau's budget and paying off the Hays Welcome Center building.

Jana Jordan, CVB director, said the new addition could reverse the falling number of people visiting Hays.

Conventions brought in 10,000 to 12,000 visitors several years ago, but the figure is 6,000 now.

There have been complaints about the site often used now, Ramada Inn, and FHSU's Memorial Union is not a convenient location for attendees, Jordan said.

The convention center might not be a cash cow, but it represents dollar signs for surrounding businesses, she said. The average convention participant spends $190 per day, and the typical convention would last one to three days.

"What's going to be really advantageous to our community is that when we have those groups into the convention center, they're more than likely staying in motel rooms, they're eating meals while they're here in our community, they're going to our attractions, they're shopping while they're here," Jordan said.

The CVB worked with 150 convention groups in 2013 whose membership ranged from 25 to 350 people.

White said the convention center also could provide opportunities for local students. FHSU's Tourism and Hospitality Management program could gain experience through event planning, and North Central Kansas Technical College's culinary students could use the kitchen as a learning lab.

Mayor Kent Steward said he does not know how he might vote on the potential proposal because he wants more details. Opinions vary on the value of convention centers, but he said he has heard they often are considered an asset to the public.

"For those who think that it's worthwhile for the city to do it, I think what we would look at would be things like parks," Steward said. "You make no money off of parks. It's all cost to the city, but we do it because we think it's an amenity that is part of having a wholesome community."

White said the city staff considered giving the project to a private contractor four years ago, but they were not satisfied when the requests for proposals were returned.

If the plan is approved, ground-breaking could begin as early as summer. The convention center could be open in early 2015.