Archive for Thursday, June 23, 2011

Group works to bring convention center to Hays

June 23, 2011

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— An Ellis County task force is trying to find a viable way to bring a convention center to Hays as competition for convention business heats up across Kansas.

A task force formed by the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development is first trying to bridge the gap between what a developer could provide and what the community might want in a convention center. And it is considering funding possibilities that would not leave the city with all the issues and risk, The Hays Daily News reported Thursday.

"One of the things we're trying to do is identify to the community there is a need out here," said Mike Downing, president of Equity Bank in Ellis. "We have a gap. We have a problem."

Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty said talk about needing a convention center began about two years ago, shortly after the Hays Holiday Inn was sold to Ramada Inn. Complaints soon started about service and cleanliness at the Inn, where most conventions in Hays are held, he said.

Three proposals for convention centers were considered but eventually all fell apart, mostly because developers wanted the city to manage it, he said.

Little progress was in the last two years, until Charlie Reese was appointed the coalition's interim director in January. The task force is comprised of county and city staff, business people and Fort Hays State University representatives.

"The phase we're in now is the assessment, the review of what is between the needs and try to propose a package the city thinks is reasonable ... that doesn't give the city all the issues and all the risks," Reese said.

Funding mechanisms discussed have included establishing a community improvement district for the convention center project or instituting a higher transient guest tax. One property or several properties could be established as a community improvement district and within that area an extra sales tax could be collected up to 2 cents for up to 22 years to reimburse an entity or petitioner for capital expenditures, Dougherty said.

Downing stressed the task force had not made any decisions and was still soliciting public input.

The task force is also concerned that other Kansas communities have either built new convention centers or are in the process of remodeling their existing centers. New convention centers have opened recently in Dodge City, Junction City and Manhattan, and the Bicentennial Center in Salina is being remodeled, Dougherty said.

Jordan said fewer organizations are interested in locating their conventions in Hays, including groups that have regularly come to Hays. She said transient guest tax has fallen about 6 percent each of the last two years.

"The last two years have shown a tremendous increase in people who said, 'No, I won't even support going out on a bid on an organization I belong to,' " Jordan said. "I would be embarrassed to have my peers come here."

Sales tax dollars fund the city's general fund, "so we depend on people coming from the outside," Dougherty said.

The task force is examining possible locations from downtown to north of I-70, as well as reusing existing facilities. The task force needs to identify the project, location and the need before discussing financial vehicles, Downing said.

Several Kansas convention centers have at least some level of public funding, including Hutchinson, which is owned and operated by the city, and Dodge City, which is privately operated but funded with a sales tax.

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