A national hotel developer is negotiating to buy a major chunk of the 600 block of New Hampshire Street to build a hotel designed to attract conventions to downtown.
Officials with Springfield, Mo.-based John Q. Hammons Hotels announced they have entered negotiations to purchase a parking lot owned and used by The World Company, owner of the Journal-World and Sunflower Broadband.
Scott Tarwater, senior vice president with the hotel company, said he was "very encouraged" that the company would complete a deal to buy the property - which stretches from Sixth Street to Seventh Street.
Plans for the property would include an approximately 200-room hotel with 40,000 square feet of meeting space, which would be nearly three times more meeting space than the Lawrence Holidome, the city's largest convention hotel. Tarwater said the combination of a growing university and a strong downtown had made the city an attractive expansion target for the company.
"We've been to Lawrence a number of times and have been very impressed," Tarwater said. "You guys have some momentum there to be really proud of."
Tarwater said the hotel should make the city a larger player in the competitive convention market. He said the facility's meeting space would be able to easily accommodate conventions of 500 to 1,000 people. Current conventions in the city average closer to 200 to 300 people, said Judy Billings, director of the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"We frequently hear from people coming to town for a convention that they would like to be downtown," Billings said. "They would like to have the opportunity to step out on the street and have some lunch and enjoy the character of the city. I think having this downtown ought to be a big plus for us."
Tarwater said the company would like to start construction in 2006 and have the project completed 16 months after work begins. Final plans for the project - price of which Tarwater declined to disclose - haven't been finalized. Any plans must receive approval from city commissioners.
When asked whether he would approach the city about the possibility of a public-private partnership to help subsidize the meeting space, Tarwater said he didn't know yet.
The company used that approach on a recent project in Junction City, where it built a 100-room hotel and 30,000 square feet convention center. In that community, the cost of the convention center is partially paid for using receipts from the city's guest tax.
"I wouldn't close the door on any discussions," said City Commissioner Sue Hack. "I couldn't say anymore than that without knowing the particulars, but I think the whole project sounds pretty exciting. It spells good things for downtown, I think."
But the project likely will not be the only one looking to add more hotel rooms to downtown. Mitchell Chaney, who leads the ownership group of the recently renovated Eldridge Hotel, said his 48-room historic property was strongly considering expansion as well. And he said if the city was open to putting public money toward meeting space, he wanted commissioners to also consider adding convention space as part of a proposed expansion of the public library.
He said his company would be unveiling plans "relatively soon" for a public-private partnership that would address parking needs in the downtown and allow expansion at the Eldridge, which is across the street from the library.
"Our plans are well along," Chaney said. "I doubt that we'll be waiting a lot to see what happens with this other project."
Others in the hotel industry said they thought the Hammons project could be a real boost to the city's convention business.
"It would be very nice to have a big meeting space like that because it could draw some very big crowds to Lawrence," said Ron Desch, general manager at Lawrence's Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites. "I think it will be good for the community, but it could hurt some individual hotels."
Hammons owns 60 hotels in 40 states. Many of its hotels frequently operate under the various Hilton and Marriott hotel brands. Tarwater said the Lawrence hotel would include an upscale, national brand name, but declined to disclose possibilities.
The project also would include some sort of parking structure that would be able to accommodate hotel guests and the needs of The World Company, said Dan Simons, president of the Electronics Division of The World Company.
"It is an impressive project and it would obviously have a huge impact on downtown," Simons said. "I think that is what excites them about it too."
The Hammons company has several properties in the area, including the Capitol Plaza Hotel in Topeka and the Embassy Suites at the Kansas City International Airport.