20 years on: Jacobs credits Comeau, States, others for downtown revival
As someone born and raised in Hays, Sandy Jacobs says the success of the city’s historic downtown as a thriving commercial district is always on her mind.
“Every morning when I wake up I think of downtown Hays and I think, ‘What’s next?’” said Jacobs, speaking Tuesday at the 20-year anniversary event of Downtown Hays Development Corp., the nonprofit organization that promotes downtown's economic vitality,
Downtown’s come-back the past two decades from a near ghost-town has been the work of many people, she noted, citing some of those present in the audience at BriefSpace, 219 W. 10th.
She mentioned Patrick McGinnis, who dreamed of a coffee shop to bring people together for dialogue, and who opened Breathe Coffee House, 703 Main.
“He did it, and it’s wonderful,” Jacobs said.
Then noting one of the newest, she mentioned chef Philip Kuhn, who recently opened Blue Smoke Barbecue, 804 Main.
“I’m so proud of you all, because it isn’t an instant success,” she said. “You’re making a commitment to downtown,” which is “not the heart, it is the soul of this community,” she said.
Now dubbed “the bricks” for its historic red brick streets, today’s thriving downtown harkens back to its heyday, which lasted up until the 1970s and faded in the late ‘80s, followed by years of decline.
Revival got its early footing in the late 1990s and 2000, unlike many small towns in Kansas, whose efforts at kick-starting their downtowns again never took off.
“You know why?” said Jacobs. “Because they didn’t have Chuck Comeau. They didn’t have somebody that had a vision for this downtown, that came and said to our group, ‘If you will buy me these seven buildings, I commit to you this is what I’ll do.”
At that time, Comeau not long before had relocated the headquarters of his successful international luxury furnishings company from Los Angeles to his hometown of Plainville, 23 miles north on U.S. Highway 183.
Then he and his wife, Shirley, expanded their business line locally into an upscale general store concept, the C.S. Post Co., in downtown Hays.
Once Hays came onboard with Comeau’s offer, investors jumped in with him and the popular Lb. Brewing Co. and Gella’s Diner opened downtown.
Comeau, still a resident of Plainville with his wife, was present Tuesday at the launch of what is a series of downtown history talks to mark the 20th anniversary.
“I personally invited Chuck because talking about the creation and the restoration and the revitalization of downtown without Chuck Comeau doesn’t even make sense in my brain,” said Jacobs. “I don’t even know how you get there.”
Jacobs on Tuesday also gave a shout out to Alan States, formerly the president and majority owner of First National Bank in Hays, who played a big role.
“He was such an integral part of what we were doing,” Jacobs said. “He was on the original board.”
The volunteer board and members of the nonprofit Downtown Hays Development Corp. were passionate, for one reason or another, about revitalizing downtown.
Confessing to fuzzy recall now many years later, Jacobs drew Tuesday on her first conversation with Comeau, “I think he said, ‘You give me those buildings and I commit to putting $8 million into your downtown.’ Am I lying about that?”
“Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration,” he laughed, “but a lot of money.”
Having a serious developer on the doorstep sparked conversations about raising money, but it seemed awkward.
“It was a whole lot easier than we thought,” she said, even though the city of Hays kind of said ‘no’ at the beginning, a difficult fact to acknowledge, she said, given she’s now the city’s mayor.
Over time, however, DHDC got commitments from Midwest Energy and Sunflower Electric for $50,000 each, along with money from Hays businessman Bob Schmidt, as well as smaller donations of $5,000, $2,000, $1,000 and $150.
That was followed by grassroots donations of $5 and $10, she said.
In recalling the history from 20 years ago, Jacobs joked to the audience of about 25 people, “sometimes I tell stories that I’m not sure I remember right.”
“You’re close, you’re real close,” joked Comeau, her co-panelist.
“It’s like hand grenades,” kidded Comeau, “you just gotta get close.”
Alan States, she recalled, stepped up with a loan while the fledgling DHDC volunteers raised money. Then other banks came forward.
“None of them were going to be first,” said Jacobs. “If he hadn’t stepped up, it wouldn’t have happened. So thank you Alan. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
The real start
Jacobs’ passion for downtown started way before that.
She recalled when transplanted Hays resident Kim Hodny, formerly from Emporia, took Jacobs on a stroll downtown, pointing out the vacant, deteriorating storefronts.
“’Are you really going to let these buildings continue and be dilapidated and fall apart and have the blight?’” Jacobs remembered her saying. “I just stood there and cried, because I grew up here.”
It reminded her of downtown Hays when she was a little girl as the gathering place for the community, whether it was Harkness Drug or Woolworths.
“She lit a fire that day and she made me think about what downtown Hays meant to me,” said Jacobs.
“My dad was killed when I was young,” Jacobs said, leaving her 26-year-old mom with five children under the age of seven.
“On Christmas, mom had given my aunt $20 and she said, ‘Those two girls are gonna want to buy me something for Christmas. Would you take them downtown?’ In that time we didn’t have an extra dollar, but she knew that it was important that we be able to buy her something. I remember walking in downtown Hays in the snow, walking across the railroad tracks, walking to Weisner’s, stopping and talking to people in the snow.”
Shops were open until 9 o’clock at night on Thursdays.
“It made me realize that all the joy and all the emotion and all the passion that I had developed for this community didn’t start when I was 30, 40, 50 years old. It started when I was seven,” she said. “And I began understanding later in life, how important, the focus on gathering became.”
No one person
Like Jacobs, Comeau has fond memories of Hays’ thriving downtown in the 1960s.
“It was a big deal to go to Hays on Saturday. You’d go into JCPenney or Weisner’s and you’d buy school clothes,” he recalled.
As a businessman making high-end custom furniture, Comeau traveled all over the country and the world and witnessed revitalization not only of shopping areas, but development of places for people to do fun things, eat, drink, talk and visit.
That became his vision for Hays’ downtown.
“It was about doing something that left something much, much, better and it could develop a life of its own,” Comeau said. “And as you know, right now, Hays has a life all of its own …There’s lots of people involved in it, which is the ultimate goal of the whole process.”
Jacobs agreed. She and Comeau ended up very good friends, she said.
“We could argue and scream and yell, and people have seen us do that, across the table, and walk out and still be friends when it was over with,” she said. “When you think about leaving the world a place, because that is a goal that I’ve had all my life. I just want to be sure that my little piece of the world is a little bit better than when I started. But you can’t do that by yourself.”
“No, you can’t,” Comeau agreed.
“When I look at downtown Hays Development Corp.,” she said. “If you do not have a board of directors that’s committed to what you want to do … Chuck says it’s kind of developed a life of its own. But I know he understands when I say this downtown is at a tipping point every single day. One thing can happen that it goes the other way.”
Love for the historic
Comeau said he loves architecture, history, the process of design as it relates to renovation, seeing what others don’t in a project, and the construction process itself, and seeing the change. That drew him to Hays’ historic downtown.
“For Kansas, and where we’re at in Kansas, it is good architecture, and you have to appreciate it for what it is,” he said. “This is what Kansas is about, and that’s what appealed to me.”
Improving the quality of life was important too.
Jacobs cautioned it doesn’t happen by accident.
“You have to be intentionally watching. It can’t be happenstance or the byproduct of another conversation,” she said. “I ask that you consider intentionally thinking about anything you want to do, not just about downtown Hays, but in your life.”
That’s what DHDC and the other downtown businesses leaders are doing, she indicated.
“I hope that every time you see the people that serve, you thank them,” she said. “Because they are intentionally thinking about your downtown and your community and your residents, every day.”
As for Comeau, he said the best thing for downtown is lots of restaurants and coffee shops, building momentum, because they create foot traffic and give people something they enjoy doing.
“It’s taken 20 years,” he said. “A lot of people wanted this to happen like that,” he said clapping his hands.
“It doesn’t happen that way,” he said. “There’s going to be this whole cycle of growth. There’s one, and then there’s two, there’s three, and four, and five, six.”
“What did this process teach you?” McGinnis asked Comeau.
“Patience,” Comeau said after a pause to think.
“No matter what size a community you’re in, there’s a human component that you learn, that has its good points and has its bad points, and you learn both of those full speed,” he said. “No matter how much money you can throw into a project, until the process starts working — and the process isn’t necessarily changing the buildings — the process is people coming downtown and recognizing it for what it is and what it used to be and doing that again. That’s the patience part, because you don’t have any control over it, it’s completely out of your control.”
“The other thing,” Comeau said. “Everybody’s human and things happen for a reason, they just do, no matter if they are good, bad or indifferent, they happen for a reason, and normally that’s a better reason.”
“Absolutely, that’s a great way to put it. I found out I was right,” joked Jacobs to audience laughter, then changing tone. “Seriously, it was about gathering, it was about bringing people together, to have vision, to love each other, to love where they live, to take pride in their community.”
The next talk in the series is Tuesday, April 20, with the first executive director of DHDC Sabrina William.
William will talk about how the organization raised the $750,000 to buy the buildings renovated by Comeau.
Then, on Tuesday, May 25, Comeau will return with Kelly Hansen, to talk about downtown’s redevelopment and the history of the buildings he renovated.