A strong downtown means a strong Hays community. Downtown is an economic stimulant for Hays. That’s evident in the amount of sales tax our small area collects each year. Did you know the downtown generates, on average, 13.5 percent of the total city sales tax? That’s more than $53 million every year generated by downtown sales. That’s an impressive number, and it shows an area moving forward, not backward.

There’s something exciting in Downtown Hays, an energy that is continuing to build. The holiday season kicked off with a bang in November with busy holiday open houses and Small Business Saturday weekends. At the beginning of December, a crowd of more than 400 joined us for the annual tree-lighting celebration with Santa and Mrs. Claus. They enjoyed carriage rides, free hot chocolate, Christmas carols and more before moving on to enjoy the Winter Art Walk and other holiday activities.

“Our downtown is a destination hub for all of western Kansas,” said Karen Dreiling, owner of the Furniture Look. “People come in from Great Bend, Scott City and Goodland because they know how much our downtown has to offer and the great variety they can find here.”

Downtown is keeping our community unique and relevant. Other cities across America have similar chain restaurants, grocery and department stores, but they don’t have the local eateries whose chef will come to make sure everything tastes OK or who works hard on keeping the menu one of a kind. They don’t have a jewelry store that will sell your boyfriend a custom ring just for you and supply him with a gift as well so you both get a little something. They don’t have the office supply store whose staff would drop everything for you to help you find the perfect shade of pink paper. They don’t have the gift store that knows you and even your significant other by name and who can pick out the perfect surprise for any occasion. These local businesses make Hays different from every other city in the world.

Our downtown is the most visible indicator of community pride and economic strength. It’s also a huge asset in the effort to recruit new residents, tourists and businesses. We need it to thrive, and it is. When you make personal investments in local businesses, you celebrate with them when they see success. You’re investing in the business, the owner and your community.

“A downtown with classic charm, unique businesses and local ownership are obviously the most popular and trending way to shop during the internet age,” said Dustin Roths, owner of Diamond R Jewelry. “Downtown offers you friendly faces to buy from and things you would never find online. We are destination shopping at its best, and with the many events going on downtown, our businesses are blessed with more foot traffic than a typical shopping center.”

Downtown Hays is also the visual and physical representation of our community’s history. The Chestnut Street District, the Historic Fort and the Ellis County Historical Society specifically tell the story of our past and shows the pride we have in our heritage.

Downtown is a gathering place. Somewhere you can come to just “be” and relax. Under construction right now at 10th and Main is an open-air pavilion. This project is a collaboration between Downtown Hays Development Corp., the City of Hays, Fort Hays State University and Commercial Builders. It is scheduled for completion in March, and at that point, will be gifted to the city so anyone can use it just like other public city shelters. It’s a beautiful structure we hope gets used for events, family reunions, performance art, musical productions and more.

“What I love most about Downtown Hays is we are all like family,” said Brianne Sultzer, co-owner of Refine Boutique. “We symbolize retailers, customers and friends. With so much happening in downtown, who wouldn’t want to bring their family here? We have so many unique places to shop, eat, see and visit that I welcome everyone to enjoy it firsthand and love it as much as I do.”

Development and new businesses will continue to bring life to our already wonderful downtown. They will continue to spur the energy that surrounds the area. I invite you to be a part of it. Remember to think and shop local first. Remember to support these businesses who support you, and invest personally in the community we all live in.

Sara Bloom is executive director of Downtown Hays Development Corp.