It was described as a vision for downtown Hays many years in the making. And after all the time spent dreaming and planning, the long-time goal of a community gathering space has become a reality.

More than 100 people gathered at Union Pacific Park near 10th and Main on Friday afternoon to celebrate the grand opening of an open-air downtown pavilion, developed by the Downtown Hays Development Corp. and turned over to the City of Hays for public use.

Ultimately, it was an unprecedented public/private partnership that created enough momentum to see the project come to fruition, said Sara Bloom, executive director of DHDC. The non-profit organization joined forces with the City of Hays, Fort Hays State University, Commercial Builders, North Central Kansas Technical College and several financial benefactors, including the Dane G. Hansen Foundation and Robert E. and Patricia Schmidt Foundation.

“We feel great joy when we see people gathering in our beautiful downtown, and we look forward to seeing the many creative ways this space will be utilized,” Bloom said.

Applied technology students in Kris Munsch’s class at Fort Hays State University provided most of the construction labor, with oversight from Commercial Builders, which donated labor toward the project.

Approximately 80 FHSU students were involved in the project, which spanned two semesters as work continued for more than a year. A different class of students also provided the design concept and engineering blueprint for what turned out to be the largest construction project students ever have completed, Munsch said.

“This was truly for all of us, a really, really cool project. It was bigger than we dreamed that we could do,” he said. “I think there are many more community projects that we could get involved in.”

That sentiment was echoed by Hays Mayor James Meier, who applauded the community partnership and challenged community members to keep looking toward the future and identifying other ways to improve the city.

“Can this just be the beginning? What else can we do for our community to make it better and how else can the city facilitate that and how can we work with Fort Hays to make some of these things happen?” Meier said. “I don’t want to spoil the day because today is a day of celebration for a great thing for our community, but let’s always look to the future. Let’s always think about what we can do to make our city better.”

The pavilion was funded mostly by DHDC and private donations, with the city providing assistance for utilities and labor. The structure will be owned and maintained by the city, and it will be available for public use. Residents also can contact the parks department to reserve the pavilion for private events, just like other park shelter houses.

The pavilion features an adobe roof, stained wood ceiling, several metal benches honoring project donors and a brick retaining wall that honors the names of many other downtown benefactors.

The space has seating room for approximately 100 people, using the columns, benches and retaining walls for seating. There are no permanent seats or tables within the pavilion to keep the space open for events.

Elaborate wrought iron corbles were constructed by student at North Central Kansas Technical College, which also provided the electrical and lighting work for the facility.

Gary Weatherbee, president of Commercial Builders, said the project stands out among the thousands the company has been involved in due to the unique partership and the opportunity to work with college students.

“Honestly, the award goes to everybody here today. This pavilion belongs to us all. We all get to enjoy its benefits for decades to come,” Weatherbee said. “For these students who worked so hard and learned so much while performing a hands-on learning experience, this place will be special. I see you bringing your future families here and explaining how you built this thing.”

The pavilion was unveiled for its first public event Friday night as it hosted live jazz music for the Hays Arts Council’s spring gallery walk.

“This pavilion is already doing what it was designed to do, and that is to bring people to downtown Hays,” said Dustin Roths, president of the DHDC board. “It will serve as a meeting place, a dance hall, a town center of sorts. We want to see family reunions, concerts, festivals, markets, picnics, anything you can think of to do here. This building is now yours.”