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SPOTLIGHT
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Convention center

Published on -4/27/2014, 2:18 PM

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Some community shortcomings are too large for the private sector to fulfill. At such times, public entities either become a partner or take on the project themselves -- with the blessing of taxpaying constituents.

In Hays, community-betterment ideas that came to fruition via this method could include the aquatic park, golf course, disc golf course, sports complex and historical museum, as well as many programs of various non-profit organizations. City and county governments embark on many ventures that help improve the quality of life.

One of the latest ideas, building a new $8.2 million convention center north of the interstate, appears destined to remain an artist's rendering unless altered dramatically.

Prior to being presented to the Hays City Commission to approve two proposed financing mechanisms, the primary source of funding balked at the plan. Walmart, which does not believe it will benefit from the new facility but whose customers would pay for an estimated 65 percent of the project, let local officials know last week it might not support the CID. The balance would be paid for with an increased hotel bed tax.

"Without Walmart, the funding stream does not work, so we need to discuss how we're going to proceed," said Aaron White, executive director for the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development.

We can't say we blame the blue-vesters. The Hays Walmart store plays an active role supporting the community, but simply didn't see any return on this particular investment and felt the CID was inequitable.

We weren't seeing what Walmart shoppers would get for spending an additional $5.3-plus million during the next 10 years, either. While many in the business sector were expressing support for the project, regular residents were not. Had a city- or countywide sales tax vote been held, it would have been defeated soundly. There just hadn't been a solid financial case presented.

Fort Hays State University certainly would have benefited. The school was planning to operate the facility and use it as a working lab for its Tourism and Hospitality Management program. North Central Kansas Technical College was planning to use the kitchen for its culinary program. Not having to build, buy or lease a facility made the concept appealing, as were the opportunities for students.

The question was going to be whether a convention center not attached to a hotel would draw much business. Most centers have sleeping rooms, meeting rooms and dining facilities all under one roof. Some, such as Junction City and Topeka, fake it by having extremely long, covered hallways connecting them. Newton, on the other hand, is making a go of it by only having a hotel nearby.

We must remind readers about the impetus for the Hays effort. Deteriorating conditions at the former Holiday Inn, then the former Ramada Inn, now the Hays Ambassador Hotel and Conference Center at 3603 Vine, had resulted in the loss of local convention business. Changes in management and pleadings with owners did little to improve what had been called the Hays Convention Center.

So the Economic Development Coalition took on the project. It formed a non-profit 501(c)3 arm that was going to take ownership responsibility, explored various developers and plans and, most recently, had been putting the CID in place.

Meanwhile, it appeared as if the perceived crisis had passed. Transient guest tax collections for the city have increased steadily since 2005 -- 72 percent total. Sales tax receipts likewise have grown, with only 2009 and 2010 registering small decreases. Since 2005, sales tax collections have gone up 45 percent. Likewise, the number of conventions, district meetings, conferences, family reunions, exhibits, etc. are on an upward trend in this time period, other than a dip in 2011 that recovered the following year.

Would these numbers all move even higher if a new convention center was built? No feasibility studies have been conducted, but anecdotal evidence frequently is offered. A letter of support from the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce states: "This facility would provide numerous benefits to the community and have a lasting impact on our businesses for years to come."

Whether that optimism is justified might never be known. We are thankful the project is not moving forward in its current form. Placing the financial responsibility for a convention center on the backs of Walmart shoppers who have little other stake in the project is decidedly unfair.

Supporters of the center need to go back to the drawing board. A CID that utilizes future earnings of the project itself makes sense. So does securing a developer who has skin in the game. And, since we're back to square one, let's pursue a stand-alone facility that includes everything a convention center actually needs.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net

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