Funding DHDC

With Downtown Hays Development Corp. searching for a new director and the City of Hays preparing to pass next year's budget, it strikes us as opportune to re-examine the relationship between the two entities. There is no $64,000 question to answer, but there is a request from DHDC for $53,655.

To help assist commissioners and the public whether the request is worth granting, a little history lesson is in order.

When DHDC was founded in 2001, it was done with enormous support from private individuals and the business community. Everybody believed the downtown needed revitalization, and Liberty Group had stepped forward to develop it. The downtown group was needed to raise enough money to purchase buildings and deed them over -- so Chuck Comeau and his team could go to work.

The results, while some in town still grumble took too long, have been stunning. The old Chestnut Street District is thriving today because of that collaboration. With Liberty's addition next year of a boutique hotel and a small convention center on Main Street, the jewel that is Downtown Hays will shine even brighter.

When DHDC made the final payment in January 2009 on its initial debt, many thought the organization either was going to change course or even disband. Its mission, after all, had been completed. Quite successfully at that.

At the time, then-Director Sabrina William said: "Even though the first phase of DHDC is over, there's still a lot of work that can be done."

And a committee was created to identify that new task.

"To be truthful, I have no idea what will come out of the task force," William said. "They'll just be throwing out all sorts of ideas."

About the same time, members of the Hays City Commission were questioning how to justify continued support of DHDC with tax dollars.

At the 2009 budget hearings, then-Mayor Barb Wasinger originally suggested cutting the organization's funding in half.

"My simple desire is that they garner their own autonomy and figure out what to do and how to budget for future years," Wasinger said. "It was never solely to be the city of Hays funding it. There was a purpose behind it, and for them to move forward and find other levels of funding."

DHDC attempted to go down that road. It accepted a 10-percent decrease in city funding and began a massive effort to recruit donors. The effort did not pan out as planned, and the annual request from the city has remained at $53,655 since then.

The group has continued to coordinate the volunteers who make the FrostFest Parade happen, the Blues, Barbecue & Bargains event, and the Wines & Steins fundraiser. DHDC also used to coordinate the Taste of Downtown Hays, but that fell by the wayside two directors ago. The organization did get Gateway Markers built by Pete Felten to mark the boundaries, started a farmer's market, and raised a lot of money to build an estimated $576,534 pavilion along the railroad tracks -- although failed to get permission from Union Pacific to erect it so that money sits in a bank account.

Currently, DHDC's mission statement says the group "is to foster awareness and promote Downtown Hays as a vibrant center of commerce, recreation, arts, government and history that serves the people of Hays, the surrounding region and visitors from around the world. The DHDC will work to prevent the deterioration and enhance the viability of the community's cultural centers, historical landmarks and public infrastructure important to the community's economic and cultural well-being."

While sounding ambitious, all of those identified goals already are served by others such as the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau, Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, the Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, Liberty Group, the city, and the businesses and organizations located downtown. DHDC staff and volunteers are present at a lot of events others host, but it appears to be a tax-supported cheerleading outfit.

We'd likely have a different opinion if the group had accomplished anything of note in the last five years. Or even if downtown entities had faith in the organization. Look at the composition of DHDC's board of directors or its significant donors. Very few represent downtown Hays. In fact, the DHDC office isn't downtown. DHDC hasn't been able even to convince downtown businesses to be open during its signature events other than the Blues, Barbecue & Bargains.

Hays Mayor Henry Schwaller indicated in Friday's Hays Daily News the group should determine its mission before hiring a new director. That's a blunt and candid assessment coming from a long-time DHDC supporter and board member.

While the mayor's suggestion makes sense, DHDC is free to do as it pleases. We would recommend instead the city stop funding an organization that is duplicative at best. Throwing public money at an entity that completed its necessary mission five years ago might reflect eternal optimism but does not show fiduciary responsibility.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net