A group of community leaders boarded a bus Monday afternoon for an annual tour intended to highlight current development projects and future opportunities for growth.

The “community cruise” is organized by Hays Area Chamber of Commerce, Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development, Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Downtown Hays Development Corporation.

Representatives from the Hays City Commission, Hays USD 489, Fort Hays State University and North Central Kansas Technical College attended the event, which also is partly to help distinguish between the services each of the four sponsoring organizations provide.

“This is to try to initiate conversation and dialogue that we think is very important,” said Tammy Wellbrock, executive director of the Hays Area Chamber.

As the bus headed down Vine Street, Aaron White — director of the Ellis County Coalition —discussed prospective business developments as well as obstacles facing the region.

White said Big Creek Crossing, 2918 Vine, actively is recruiting businesses to occupy the south end of the mall, as well as a former tire shop in the south side of the parking lot. White said mall officials have indicated they are “getting close” to reaching deals.

Just across the street, the site of the former Ambassador hotel remains vacant, and White said there are currently no active leads on the property — likely due to a high asking price.

“As far as the former Ambassador location, there is nothing going on at that site at this point and time,” White said. The owner … the last I’ve known, he’s still asking $3.3 million for that 5-acre piece. And honestly, nobody has any interest in it for $3.3 million.”

White specifically noted the Coalition has identified a desire for additional grocery retailers in Hays and has reached out to options including Hy-Vee and Aldi. There have not been any commitments, but those types of retailers indicated they only would consider opening in a smaller market like Hays when Kansas allowed liquor sales in grocery stores, he said. Due to a change in state law, grocery stores can sell stronger beer only beginning next year.

Further north on Vine Street, Hays CVB director Melissa Dixon announced a new Marriott TownePlace Suites opened Saturday. Projects also are in the works to develop a La Quinta hotel west of the former Golden Corral restaurant, which is expected to reopen as an Old Chicago.

Another developer is seeking City of Hays tax incentives for a new Hilton Garden Inn with an 8,000-square-foot convention center.

White said data indicates the city could be losing as many as 6,000 visitors annually due to lack of a convention center and large meeting space. Officials already are taking phone calls from groups wanting to visit Hays when the facility is completed.

“People say, ‘Don’t we have enough hotels?’ ” Dixon said. “We decline a lot of conventions and groups because we don’t have the space for them to meet, or we don’t have enough rooms for their events.”

The Kansas Special Olympics basketball and cheerleading tournament this spring divided into two locations, with one tournament in Hays earlier this month and another in Topeka. While that was partly due to a growing number of athletes and a desire to keep the event affordable for families in eastern Kansas, a shortage of hotel rooms in Hays also was a factor, Dixon said.

The tour also included a cruise through downtown Hays, where the Coalition is refurbishing a building on West 10th Street to provide a shared working space and the organization’s future headquarters.

Das Essen Hutte, a German food restaurant, also is expected to open soon, and a CrossFit training facility has plans to open in the former Home location on West 10th, said Sara Bloom, executive director of DHDC. An existing downtown business, Something Blue, 1008 Main, is expanding to fill a second store.

Plans also are in the works for a possible manufacturing development east of Hays near Commerce Parkway.

Challenges that could be hindering future development include a low unemployment rate and lack of an available, specially skilled workforce for certain industries that might consider moving in or expanding operations, White said. High land prices and housing costs also remain a concern, though the housing market has come down slightly.

“The consistent message we get from developers and realtors is Hays is a market they want to be in, but it’s not a good enough market that they’ll overpay for land,” White said. “So finding the right space and getting it priced at a reasonable level for what these guys are coming in to do is always going to be the biggest challenge.”