Streaming movie giant Netflix and the co-working BriefSpace at 219 W. 10th have something in common.
Hays’ unique co-working space provides high-speed Internet that benefits the world’s largest online entertainment provider, according to Doug Williams, executive director of Grow Hays, the developer of BriefSpace.
“We’ve got a kid down there now, he just came down, he’s renting an office down there, he needed the high-speed Internet and he does video-editing for Netflix,” Williams told the Hays City Commissioners on Thursday evening.
“He’s editing 4K video and he needed high-speed bandwidth, and he just loves the place, because he can come down and work and do what he couldn’t do at home or anywhere else in town without buying a very high-speed connection,” he said. “That’s the type of people we need to attract,” Williams said.
Williams made the comments to the Hays City Commission Thursday evening. He was explaining programs and projects at Grow Hays during the commission’s regular meeting in City Hall, 1507 Main St.
“We are slower than we would like, in terms of adoption of the concept of free space,” said Williams.
The entity formerly known as the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development opened BriefSpace a little over a year ago.
“I’m frustrated it hasn’t happened faster than it has. But in talking to other co-working spaces around the country they say two years is how long it takes to get that concept to be adopted,” he told the commissioners.
Williams said the meeting rooms are being used a lot, including by Fort Hays State University, Thomas More Prep, Nex-Tech, HaysMed and Sunflower Electric. In the next few weeks, Grow Hays is upgrading BriefSpace with large screen TVs and devices so people can make presentations wirelessly from a smart phone, tablet or computer.
BriefSpace is just one of the Grow Hays programs. Williams outlined many others.
E-Community loans through the statewide NetWork Kansas provides gap financing for start ups, existing business acquisitions and business growth. The loans have attractive terms and conditions, and are serviced by Grow Hays. The money is basically for down payments for bank loans, he said.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how Grow Hays develops this program,” said Vice Mayor and Commissioner Henry Schwaller IV, “because it has a lot of potential.”
Right now Grow Hays is holding about nine loans, with applications for another couple.
“They are better terms than they would get from the bank, but we do still expect them to pay them back,” Williams said. “That’s been a bit of a problem on a couple of them, but we’re cracking the whip on those.”
A housing rehabilitation program helps house flippers buy property, fix it up, then sell it to a homebuyer for $140,000 or less. Funded with a grant from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, the goal is to create affordable housing, but the effect is bigger than that, Williams said.
“It improves neighborhoods. Takes a house that may be in need of repair and improves the look of it and the neighborhood,” he said. It also generates sales tax and purchases of building materials, adds jobs and opportunity for subcontractors, and gives flippers money to spend in town and turn around and do it again.
“And at the end of the day it provides housing in a price range that we have determined is affordable housing,” Williams said.
Also funded with a Hansen grant is the Workforce Development program. Grow Hays sponsors free Commercial Driver’s License classes and welding classes in conjunction with North Central Kansas Technical College and Fort Hays State University.
“We’re still trying to get our arms around how successful those programs have been,” he said. “Did these people gain a skill that they could go out and get a better job at, therefore earn more money, buy a house, buy a car, or whatever it might be? We don’t have enough data back on that.”
A lot has happened the past year, since Grow Hays rebranded by changing its name and logo in March, got a new location, and hired a new director when Williams took over as interim director in May and then as executive director in October. Grow Hays will launch a new website the first quarter of 2019. But the mission has remained the same.
“It’s business creation, business retention and expansion, and business recruitment,” Williams said. “So amongst all the change, we still haven’t changed what we’re all about. We are here to promote business in Ellis County.”
Grow Hays also reduced its board members from 25 to 13. Six board positions open Jan. 1. There are 10 applicants for those three-year terms, he said. The group look for board members who bring a unique talent or skill to the board.
“We have a very good board. They’re dedicated, they’re engaged,” he said. “We have a diverse group of people with diverse backgrounds and diverse talents, and they’re committed to growing Ellis County.”
Other projects include efforts to develop a travel center, with most of the interest focused on the U.S. 183 Bypass, Interstate 70 exit 157; a bypass off U.S. Highway 183 and Feedlot Road to help Hess Services Inc. and other employers get people to work, products on the road, and possibly reroute truck traffic and alleviate heavy truck traffic on Vine St.
“We’re very committed to trying to get something to happen there,” Williams said.
Grow Hays is also working on retail strategies, including with Big Creek Crossing’s DP Management L.L.C.
“They are working some prospects and are reasonably optimistic,” Williams said. “They’ve had a couple of disappointments on people they thought were coming that haven’t pulled
the trigger. But they’re optimistic.”
A couple affordable housing concepts are being studied. Grow Hays is working with some landowners and some builders to look at a different type of construction.
“In Hays, it seems like we know how to build one thing, and it’s a five-bedroom three-bath two-car garage house for $300,000,” Williams said. “There’s some feeling among some people that some new housing could be built if we could get into some land at a little lower cost and build a little different type of home and hit some different price points.”
Helping employers find employees in the face of low unemployment is also a challenge, he noted, as is the area-wide population loss, even though Hays is growing.
Attracting new residents is a core need, indicated Hays Mayor James Meier.
“If we could solve population loss, these other things would fall into place. We would get the retail that we want, we would have the tax base to build the northwest bypass if we want to do that, we’d have people coming to town to solve that 2.1 percent unemployment problem,” Meier said.
“At some point,” he said, “We have to figure out how we’re going to get people to move to Hays.”
Partnerships are key, Williams said.
“This is not a sprint. It’s not going to happen overnight. It really is a marathon. It’s going to take some time and we’ve got to be diligent. And it’s going to happen through partnerships,” he said. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be a day where your economic development director stands up here and says ‘I brought Target to town.”
Instead, he said, “There’s lots of people that are going to be involved in that, and play a role in that. …It takes a village to make some of this stuff happen.”
Grow Hays events coming up include: Pitch Night, a sort of Shark Tank, on Jan. 22; a Youth Challenge on March 20, for Ellis County high school students to make presentations; and quarterly luncheons at BriefSpace with economic development updates.