The Hays City Commission at Thursday’s work session gave consensus for Hays artist Dennis Schiel to pursue private funding for a massive historical mural to be painted around the base of the city water tower near Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

The 67-foot-tall mural would depict a bison and a historic steam engine alongside Wild Bill Hickok, George Armstrong Custer and Buffalo Bill Cody. The mural would take approximately 12 working months to complete, Schiel said.

“If you’re coming from the south, you’ll see the train. From the westbound, you’ll see the buffalo, that would be the first thing you hit,” he said. “From the eastbound, you end up seeing Hickok first. I can imagine going by that. For me, it’s going to be great. Everybody that goes on I-70 is going to see my artwork, and that’s quite a few people.

“But for the city of Hays, it’s going to probably be just as great.”

Schiel’s total estimated cost for the mural is approximately $268,000, which is less than typically would be charged for a project of that size, he said. Schiel will be tasked with raising private funding for the mural, and said he intends to pursue regional grant opportunities.

Before his painting can begin, the city will have to fund lead remediation and repainting of the tower, which would cost approximately $550,000. Paint on the tower is 21 years old and flaking, which could expose lead if not addressed, said Jeff Crispin, director of water resources.

“Lead was confirmed last year. We had a testing done on lead and I’ll tell you the threshold is like 5,000 parts per million, and that tested at 32,900 parts per million,” he said. “There’s a lot of flaking. When you’re driving by it, you really can’t tell. But if you get up to it, there’s a lot of flaking and a lot of things that need to be taken care of.”

Crispin said the lead-based paint is flaking, but is not airborne and does not pose an immediate public safety risk.

When the tower is remediated, the entire structure will be covered to ensure the lead is safely contained.

The city’s 55th Street water tower also needs repainted at an estimated cost of $100,000. That tower is 24 years old and does not have lead issues, but it is advantageous to pursue both projects at the same time, Crispin said.

Commissioners were asked to move the projects up in the city’s capital improvement plan. They were slated for 2019, but moving them forward to this year would allow Schiel to begin work in 2019.

The top of the water tower would be designed and updated by Fort Hays State University, which has indicated willingness to fund that portion of the project. The top of the tower features a design promoting Sternberg Museum, which has been in place 21 years.

City commissioners expressed enthusiasm for the mural project, but some questioned why a historically-themed mural was chosen for that location.

“I love the idea. I love the concept,” commissioner Chris Dinkel said. “I think the canvas is really neat. I’m not sure about the content.”

Dinkel noted Hays does not have a large number of historical attractions to offer tourists compared to other cities such as Dodge City or Abilene.

Schiel said he expects the mural in itself to become a tourist attraction, and said he hopes the project will receive enough support to eventually construct a visitors’ kiosk with information about the art and Hays attractions.

“This is a historical piece as far as I’m concerned. Those three people were involved with Hays, Kansas. The buffalo was great big in Hays, Kansas, because that’s why they all came here during the railroad, and the railroad was part of that,” Schiel said. “The only reason I’m doing that is because that’s more the history that I want to represent. I think Hays makes the mistake of not being above Dodge City, because we have more cowboy history here, for that type of history, than actually Dodge City does if you look at it.”

Several commissioners agreed, saying they believe the 67-foot-tall painting would be enough to compel passersby to pull off the interstate for a closer look.

“I really appreciate what Chris said and I do understand that, but I love the historical value,” commissioner Sandy Jacobs said. “I keep thinking, and the downtown Hays folks will attest to the fact of how often I say, we can’t lose the history we have in our community. And we have a lot of history downtown.”