Convention center still a work in progress
By DAWNE LEIKER
For Jana Jordan, the possibility of a new convention center helps drive her optimism for continued travel and tourism growth in Hays.
"You can hardly depend on any one portion of tourism," said Jordan, executive director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You cannot just depend on those people that are leisure travelers that come off I-70."
Likewise, Jordan said, Hays can't entirely rely on folks who travel to the community for sporting events or conventions.
"It's really a three-pronged stool," she said. "And if you lose one of those legs of that stool, you can carry on but you're sure not living up to your full potential in your community."
An Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development task force has been working for several years in an attempt to hatch a convention center plan. The proposed convention center is anticipated to be managed by Fort Hays State University and serve as a "laboratory" for both the FHSU hospitality management program and North Central Kansas Technical College's culinary arts program.
The task force recently submitted an application to the Internal Revenue Service to form a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization to serve as the owner of the facility. The 501(c)3 will be under the authority of the ECC.
Funding for the convention center project is planned to be received through a community improvement district composed of approximately a dozen businesses north of Interstate 70 on Vine Street. The businesses that would impose an additional sales tax to pay for the project include several hotels, restaurants and Walmart SuperCenter.
Should a business within the CID, such as Walmart, close while the CID is in effect, Coalition Executive Director Aaron White said the property would continue to be a part of the CID, which would follow with the sale of the property.
"When you're talking about relying on sales tax dollars from a certain district to do funding, there's some inherent risks if the business goes away," White said. "Whatever the replacement would be would pick up the CID and would carry the CID from that point forward."
The CID will be voted on by city commissioners in the event the 501(c)3 is approved by the IRS.
"The way it's set up, it's a limited involvement from the city," White said. "(Commissioners) will approve or disapprove the CID, and that will ultimately be the extent of that."
That limited involvement by the city is an attractive feature of the CID, said Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty.
"That, to me, is the beauty of a CID like that," Dougherty said. "The city's not liable.
"It's not a general obligation bond or a revenue bond or a special revenue or anything like that. It's strictly on the property."
Plans for the convention center are moving forward. White said the task force recently met with an architect, discussing bid presentation and organization issues for the center.
Purchase options on both lots to the south of the Holiday Inn Express and Suites have been secured. Those, along with a tentative budget and input from local bankers, signals the project is moving ahead, White said.
"We have a lot of interest from our local lenders to be the support behind it," he said. "So I think we'll be able to do all the funding and financing locally.
"It's going to stay very much a local project on those terms."
The proposed 20,000-square-foot convention center will house a single large, divisible meeting area to accommodate approximately 650 people, a commercial kitchen and additional utility space. White said the task force had used Manhattan's new convention center as a model, although the Hays version would be smaller and has no attached hotel rooms.
"It should be a very usable design," White said of the Hays plan. "It's scaled really to reflect the market that the CVB says we're suitable for."
Convention numbers in Hays have fallen in the past few years, according to Jordan.
Jordan said many large conventions hosted by Hays in the past are choosing other destinations due to inadequate convention center facilities in Hays, though there is no one destination the conventions instead are choosing. Janet Kuhn, convention saleswoman, has had success in booking smaller groups between 100 and 150 people, pointing them toward meeting rooms at Fort Hays State University. However, transportation to hotels from FHSU, is sometimes a sticking point for convention groups.
In the past, Jordan said, Hays CVB has handed out close to 11,000 welcome bags a year. That contrasts to recent years, where only approximately 6,000 have been dispersed.
"That's the difference between being able to get those big conventions and having them accept us," she said. "They are pretty blunt about it.
"They are happy to say that they're not satisfied with our situation when they were here a year or two ago, and until we get that situation fixed, they will probably not be interested in accepting our bid, because there are communities that have new sites."
Jordan said she feels strongly convention traffic will return to Hays should a new convention center be built.
"The associations will tell you that when they had conventions here in the past, they had a wonderful time, and it's not like they would not come back to Hays -- if we had the right kind of facilities that would meet their needs," she said.
Although welcome bag numbers are down, the Hays transient guest tax numbers have been on the increase throughout the last few years.
Since 2009, the transient guest tax has increased from $619,240 to $754,278 in 2012, showing substantial gains each year. The transient guest tax, which increased from 4 percent to 5 percent in 2006 to fund the city's welcome center, is assessed to individuals renting motel rooms in the city.
Transient guest taxes collected in other western Kansas cities with convention centers vary considerably. The city of Great Bend, although raising its transient guest tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in 2011, collected $292,291 through the tax in 2012, according to a Kansas Department of Administration report. That contrasts to Dodge City, which collected $900,000 with its 6 percent transient guest tax in 2012. Jan Stevens, Dodge City Convention and Visitor's Bureau director, attributed that increase to several factors including the opening of a casino, hotel at the casino, United Wireless Arena and Western State Bank Expo.