Lawrence architect Mike Treanor doesn't hesitate these days when asked what he thinks downtown Lawrence is missing: a convention center.
"A convention center that could handle up to 1,500 people would be a magnet for a lot of groups," Treanor, chairman of Lawrence-based Treanor Architects, recently told a group gathered to discuss the future of downtown Lawrence. "It would keep the hotels full. It would be good for the restaurants and shops. It would be tremendous."
It's definitely an idea that is floating around town, and the concept isn't limited to downtown.
Kansas University officials confirmed they have discussed the concept of a convention center at 23rd and Iowa streets as part of the university's master planning process that is underway.
"One of the things a master plan allows an institution to do is dream a little," said Tim Caboni, KU's vice chancellor for public affairs.
Caboni said he was uncertain whether the concept of a convention center on KU property would end up in the university's draft master plan, which likely will be released next spring. But he said KU leaders want to hear how both the university and the community might benefit from a convention center and hotel that would allow for larger events to be hosted in the city.
The idea is drawing interest from the development community too. Lawrence businessman Doug Compton said he would like for the Lawrence City Commission to solicit a feasibility study on what the Lawrence market could support in terms of a convention center and supporting hotel.
Compton is leading a group that is constructing a new Marriott hotel and mixed-use building at Ninth and New Hampshire, has constructed one seven story apartment building in downtown, and has plans for two other multistory apartment buildings. A convention center would build on the theme of the more people you can draw to downtown, the healthier the district will become.
"We already have a strong downtown, but a convention center would really add to its vitality," Compton said.
KU's master planning process has sparked some of the discussion of a convention center — or conference center, depending on how large of space is considered. But a pending change in a major piece of downtown property also has caused discussion of the idea.
The World Company, which owns the Journal-World, announced last month that it plans to close its printing plant at 609 New Hampshire St. in mid-January when the newspaper will be printed at a Kansas City facility.
Dan Simons, president of The World Company's electronics division, confirmed that interest in redeveloping the property — which has frontage along both New Hampshire and Massachusetts streets — has been strong. He said the company has made no decisions on how to redevelop the property, but he said the idea of a convention or conference center would be considered.
"It is now up to us to repurpose and develop the footprint we have here," Simons said. "We are biased. We think it is a great entrance to downtown, and we want to do something we can be proud of for many years to come. We will look at many opportunities."
Compton confirmed the possible availability of the printing plant property has caused him to begin examining the feasibility of a convention center project again.
"I think the north end of downtown makes a lot of sense," Compton said. "If we're going to have one of these in the community, it definitely needs to be downtown."
Simons said there was no timetable for a decision to be made on the future of the property, which is generally just north of The News Center at Seventh and New Hampshire streets, which houses the Journal-World's news, advertising and circulation staffs.
Simons said a likely next step would be to hear what needs university and city officials believe the community has in terms of convention and meeting space.
Mayor Mike Dever confirmed he has had a brief conversation with KU officials about the concept of a convention center at 23rd and Iowa. Dever said he urged university leaders to be open to a variety of locations in the community.
"I suggested that 23rd and Iowa may not be the best place to showcase our community from," Dever said. "I feel like people who visit here really want to spend time in downtown."
At times during KU's master planning process, a concept to place a public-private research park on KU property near the intersection has been discussed. That type of development could create some synergy for a convention or conference center.
But Caboni said KU leaders have not come to a consensus on an ideal location for a convention center. He said the decision of whether to pursue the concept still needed to be made. He said any decision still could be years away because a master planning process by its nature produces ideas for the long-range future."
But Caboni said if the concept ultimately was pursued, the location for a facility would be a major topic of discussion with community leaders.
"We want to be a good partner with the city of Lawrence," Caboni said.
What role the city would play in building or financing a convention center also likely would be a major topic of discussion. Lawrence leaders have paid attention to the development of the Manhattan Conference Center, which opened in downtown Manhattan in 2011.
Manhattan provided about $9 million in financing for the approximately 15,000 square feet of meeting space, said Ron Fehr, Manhattan city manager. The facility is owned by the company that developed the adjacent Hilton hotel. The private company will repay about half of the $9 million amount, with the other half serving as a city contribution to the project. The city also built a parking garage to serve the area around the conference center, and created a tax increment financing district for the development.
City officials said it was too early to discuss what, if any, role the city would have in a project.
"As somebody who is a dreamer from time to time, anything that would really help downtown is fun to think about," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said. "But from a community standpoint, it still has to be a balancing act. We have to take care of all the needs of the community."