Purchase photos

Comeau proposing 'Proper' downtown biz

4/4/2014

By MATTHEW KENWRIGHT

mkenwright@dailynews.net

A proposed "Kansas Castle" might be added to the downtown Hays skyline in 2015 and figuratively fly a red-squared flag at 1108 Main.

Hays City Proper, a hotel, is designed to be reminiscent of grain elevators, which have been called the castles of the Sunflower State. The facility would replace the former Hays State Bank, said Chuck Comeau, president of Liberty Group Inc.

Although its brick and mortar would be new, Hays City Proper is a testament to the legacy of the community, Comeau said.

The hotel draws its name from an old map of Hays, said Kelli Hansen, project manager for Liberty Group Inc. A red box on the map designated the heart of Hays, and both the colored square and the area's name will be used to identify the business.

The 67-room hotel will have a lounge and cafe and is adjacent to Strand Theatre, a 6,000-square-foot events center. Separate lofts in other Liberty buildings along Main are among the rooms guests can reserve.

The Blue Light Lady Lounge is the namesake of an iconic character from Hays lore.

The nickname refers to Elizabeth Polly, a nurse who died of cholera in 1867 after treating sick soldiers. Polly is buried on Sentinel Hill southwest of Historic Fort Hays, and stories of her ghost appearing have been rumored for almost a century.

The story is famous among the Fort Hays State University community, and many have sought to see her apparition, Comeau said.

"The lounge will be mystic and legendary in its own right," he said. "The perfect place to unwind after a day of travel for visitors or a gathering place for locals to relax over drinks and reminisce about their college days at FHSU."

Mulroy Cafe borrows its name from the historic Mulroy Hotel. Built in 1889, it used to stand at 1108 Main.

"The Mulroy Cafe will be an innovative approach to breakfast and lunch," Comeau said. "The chef-inspired menu will present a culinary experience in a relaxed setting -- the 'Proper' way to start your day."

Hansen said the events center in Strand Theatre comfortably can hold approximately 350 people in a banquet setting, but it will focus on "intimate" gatherings on a smaller scale. The facility's uses could include business meetings and FHSU alumni staying in the lofts during homecoming week to watch the parade from the windows.

The venture pays homage to the area's rich culture.

"Hays' heritage is such a great story, and people love to learn about it or reminisce to those times," Hansen said. "We like to keep the history of downtown Hays alive and well in many of our projects."

The cost of renovating and retrofitting the former bank building to suit a hotel was not feasible, Hansen said. Negotiations for providing parking are underway.

Comeau said the boutique hotel and events center could challenge perceptions of northwest Kansas.

"We assembled a design team that share our passion for design, and together we created a building with regional materials that are tactile and modern, environmentally responsible, authentic and artful," he said. "Each component of the project from the design, the name and branding to the cafe and lounge concepts, all bring together Hays' history and heritage and are geared to make a statement about the Hays community on a regional and national level."

Comeau aims to have the hotel's average cost for a night range from $129 to $139.

The potential new Hays convention center located north of I-70 does not clash with his plan. Comeau likened the possibility of two event facilities to the restaurant districts that arise because customers flock to popular dining areas.    

He plans to share his idea with the Hays City Commission and seek such incentives as rebates on future property taxes, sales-tax exemptions for construction materials and a rebate on the transient guest tax.

Hansen said the visit to the commission is not scheduled yet because the hotel's feasibility study is underway until mid-May. The market study's site visit and information gathering phase is complete, and it will take six to eight weeks for the financial analysis and formal written report.

With incentives, the project has a cost/benefit ratio of $2.41 through 10 years. The dollar figure means for every dollar invested, $2.41 would return to the community through job creation, guests stays, construction and other aspects of the project. The analysis was done by the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development and a Wichita State University group.

In general, if the ratio is greater than 1, the project is considered "economically advantageous," Hansen said.

The construction, set to begin after the bank building is demolished at the end of the year, would create 143 jobs. The hotel will create several full-time jobs and multiple part-time jobs with a $3.8 million payroll in a 10-year period.

The project would be the latest step in the downtown's revitalization.

From 2001 to 2013, approximately $8.2 million privately was invested in downtown as 38 net new businesses were established, according to numbers from the Downtown Hays Development Corp. Sales tax collections from the downtown business district increased from $359,680 in 2001 to $1.28 million in 2013, according to data from the city. The figure is approximately 9 percent of the city's total sales tax collections.

Sandy Jacobs, former president of DHDC and current board member, said the need for a downtown hotel was identified in the city's 20-year comprehensive plan several years ago. The proximity to FHSU and the attractions make a downtown hotel an attractive proposition, she said.

"I think it would truly make it a destination point," Jacobs said about the downtown region.

The hotel would not compete with a possible convention center because they would have different appeal and complement each other, she said.