Editorial: Clarity needed on tourism

While the city should not rush to build a conference center, it needs to articulate its long-term vision.

The city of Lawrence needs to figure out what type of business it wants to be in.

At a study session this evening, commissioners will discuss whether the city wants to be in the conference center business. A group of developers led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton are floating a proposal to turn the former Journal-World printing plant near Sixth and Massachusetts and Sixth and New Hampshire into a complex that includes a hotel, condos, retail space and a conference center. It sounds intriguing but also complicated, given that developers want the city to actually own the conference center.

(Full disclosure: The Journal-World does not own any of the property under consideration for the center. The former owners of the newspaper — the Simons family — own the property. However, the Journal-World’s offices are located next to the site.)

Commissioners will receive a pitch about the public benefits that a conference center could provide to the community. Such a pitch will have to overcome some skepticism. Mayor Leslie Soden has minced no words in saying she dislikes the incentive request.

If commissioners tonight only try to answer the question of whether they like the idea of a city-supported conference center in downtown, they will be thinking too narrowly. Instead, a more reasonable question is: Does the city want tourism to be a larger part of our economy?

The city previously has sent many messages that it does. The city spent nearly $25 million to support the Rock Chalk Park development. If all the city was trying to accomplish was to build a nice recreation center to serve local needs, it could have done so for far less money. Presumably, the city spent the money because it believes the center will attract visitors to town, which will produce positive economic results.

The city also has provided tax incentives to two hotel developments in recent years — The Oread hotel near the KU campus, and TownePlace Marriott in downtown. Those incentives presumably were another sign that the city was making a bet on increasing its visitor economy. Other private hotel developers have responded in kind. There has been a significant amount of hotel renovation and new hotel construction in the community.

Given that, a conference center is not a surprising idea. If you build more hotels, you must fill more hotels. Lawrence struggles to do so during weekdays. Conferences would help.

There is no guarantee, however, that building a new conference center will mean more visitors will come to Lawrence. The city could find itself investing in a conference center and receiving very little in return. The City Commission is not wrong in being cautious about this project. But it would be troubling if city leaders are outright dismissive at this point. Maybe city commissioners are quick studies, but the public has had next to no time to digest the details of this latest proposal. Big ideas deserve a little time to marinate.

After having more time to study the proposal — and perhaps have some back-and-forth with the developers — the city may still come to the conclusion that it doesn’t want to be in the conference center business. At least at that point, the community could feel more confident that it was a reasoned decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction to an initial incentives request.

But if the city does ultimately say no to the conference center, leaders should be clear about what that means. Did the city send false signals about wanting to build a tourism industry? If not, how does it intend to attract visitors to justify the millions it already has spent on the effort?

Answers will be expected because the city can’t afford to be in the business of making haphazard bets with taxpayer money.