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Speculation increases that site near The Oread hotel may be in running for convention center

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Ike and Hoover may end up having a say in whether the city of Lawrence and Kansas University move ahead with a new convention center.

No, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Herbert Hoover aren't cryogenically frozen in the basement of Lawrence City Hall. (I'm 80 percent certain of that.) At Lawrence City Hall, Ike and Hoover are the nicknames for two very old and important water tanks that serve the central part of Lawrence. You've probably seen them. They are just north of Kansas University's Adams Alumni Center.

The two tanks were constructed in the Hoover and Eisenhower administrations, which means they are due for either major repairs or replacement. As we've previously reported, KU officials have inquired as to whether the tanks could be moved to another site, and city officials are open to exploring the idea.

Well, at Tuesday night's meeting, there were indications that one of the possible KU uses for the property may be a new convention or conference center. (You'll have to decide what you want to call this potential new facility, but I note that for decades we have had the Lawrence Convention and Visitors Bureau, not the Lawrence Conference and Visitors Bureau.)

No plans for a convention center at that site have been formally proposed, but City Manager David Corliss made a point to mention the water tank property as he was briefing commissioners on locations a consultant may be asked to study.

It makes sense with what I've been hearing in certain circles as well. For a few weeks, there's been talk that KU leaders and members of the Fritzel family have been in discussions about a convention center partnership. In fact, some folks close to those discussions had said a deal was near. I asked Tim Caboni, vice chancellor of public affairs for KU, whether there was any truth to that assertion, and he said that wasn't accurate. He said KU was still in the stage of determining the feasibility of a convention/conference center in Lawrence, and wanted to explore possible sites in conjunction with the city.

But Caboni also didn't deny that some university leaders had been in discussions with members of the Fritzel family. Caboni said he had "heard of the same conversations" I had, but he said he hadn't been a party to any of them. But he said it is clear there are individuals who have some pretty specific sites in mind for a convention/conference center.

"But we're not going to focus in on one site," Caboni said. "We're going to keep our options open."

It would make sense that the Fritzels may have an interest in having a convention center at that site. Brothers Thomas and Tim Fritzel are major owners of The Oread hotel, which is almost caddy-corner from the water tank site. I say almost because the Ecumenical Campus Ministries building is right at the corner of 12th Street and Oread Avenue, just north of the water tank site. There certainly was talk in real estate circles a couple of years ago that a Fritzel-led group inquired about purchasing the longtime ECM site, but a deal obviously never materialized.

If the water tank site and the ECM site were combined, that would create the space for a substantial project., But even without the ECM site, there still would be significant space for development, especially given the city's recent trend of approving tall buildings with underground parking garages.

Of course, the first step is for the city to determine that it is feasible to move the water tanks to a new location. Corliss said that option is being studied by an engineering firm, but a conclusion hasn't yet been made. The most likely location is to move the tanks across the street, just north of the Kansas Union parking garage.

It will be interesting to watch. If this idea of a convention center continues to move forward, the issue of where it should be located could become thorny. City Commissioner Terry Riordan noted at Tuesday's meeting that his biggest concern is the location issue. He suggested that KU and the city may have different criteria on what makes for a good location.

Generally, it appears there is going to be a debate about whether this project should be downtown-centric or campus-centric. On one hand, campus-centric puts it close to a host of ancillary meeting space — such as the Kansas Union — and it also would make it convenient for the academic community who may be a major generator of conference business. On the other hand, downtown is clearly the entertainment center of Lawrence, and half the fun of a convention is skipping out on the meetings to experience a little bit of entertainment. (For the record, I would never do that.)

I certainly don't want to gloss over the fact that one of the downtown sites that have been mentioned is property owned by The World Company, which owns the Journal-World and LJWorld.com. No formal plans have been proposed, but the company's property that stretches between Sixth and New Hampshire and Sixth and Massachusetts streets became a candidate for redevelopment after the newspaper moved its printing operations from the site earlier this year.

I do know that company leaders have had conversations with City Hall leaders about that site. What may come forward in the future, I don't know. City commissioners are expected to bring up the issue again in late March when they will consider hiring a consulting firm to study the feasibility of a convention center. (On Tuesday, they just agreed to send out the request for proposals.)

Corliss, though, said he thinks this is an issue that will occupy some attention at City Hall in the coming months, and likely will take quite a bit of study. He noted that Manhattan already has built a conference center, Topeka has convention space near the ExpoCenter, and Olathe is getting ready to proceed with some conference space. Plus, there is speculation that a conference/convention space may be in the works for the The Legends development in Western Wyandotte County. Add those competitive factors onto the fact that the city is still interested in pursuing a multimillion dollar project to build a police headquarters building, and it makes for interesting times at City Hall.

"I think it is likely that we're going to get proposals from the development community," Corliss said.

In other news and notes from around town:

• For those of you in economic development circles, it also may be worth keeping an eye on Springfield, Mo. Longtime Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce President Jim Anderson announced yesterday that he is retiring from the position.

That's significant up here because Lawrence Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Greg Williams served as Anderson's right-hand man for economic development for many years in Springfield. Williams still has deep ties to the Springfield region.

I got in touch with Williams yesterday evening and he told me he was "not planning to seek the job" in Springfield. But Williams — who served for 15 years as the senior vice president of economic development in Springfield — said the job is a very attractive one. He called Anderson the "very best chamber executive in America," and noted that the Springfield Chamber was honored as the best Chamber of Commerce in the country in 2012.

"In my opinion, it is a top five job in America," Williams said. "And they'll recruit a fantastic new leader."

Williams said he is happy in Lawrence.

"Those 15 years (in Springfield) prepared me to go my own direction and try my best to implement what I learned under the best leader I've ever known, in our chamber here," Williams said.

This screen shot from Google Maps shows the water tank site in the center. The Oread hotel is near the top center of the site.

This screen shot from Google Maps shows the water tank site in the center. The Oread hotel is near the top center of the site. by Chad Lawhorn

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  • Comments

    Alison Carter 10 months ago

    POP & BOOM! That surely will be the sound of the trial balloon floating the idea of building a Lawrence convention center near The Oread! Now, where's my blood pressure medicine?

    Wayne Kerr 10 months ago

    Help me out here. Why in the world would anyone want to schedule a convention in Lawrence, Kansas? With other options like Chicago, Las Vegas, or Los Angeles, why would anyone come here? Seriously, I don't get it.

    Matthew Herbert 10 months ago

    KU basketball. Period. College Hoops fans travel from ALL over the country to say they saw a game at AFH.

    Richard Heckler 10 months ago

    I say the city should NOT participate in such an out of the way location. Again Lawrence movers and shakers consistently want to do battle with Topeka and Kansas City metro. These movers and shakers have lost those battles with regard to stealing shoppers away. At a cost to local taxpayers.

    The rec center project is based on the same notions.

    One item that remained constant throughout this past 30 year endeavor is tax increases in every tax or use fees possible. It is odd that with the cost of living increasing and demand for tax dollars is also increasing that we see a ton of tax dollars never making it to the local cookie jars. Perhaps that explains the 100% tax increase on local residents under the guise of expanding the tax base over this period of time. Obviously many projects are NOT paying back the community. Tax dollar give aways just never pay back.

    Phil Minkin 10 months ago

    Not to worry! I'm sure the Fritzels will offer to carefully tear down ECM and rebuild it EXACTLY in some other place. Really, you can trust them this time.

    William Enick 10 months ago

    I'm OK with it as long as they attach a casino... and build it on Mass. St.

    Mark Kostner 10 months ago

    This idea is as outstanding as Herbert Hoover's legacy. As they say in real estate, location, location, location. The problem with this location and the KU campus in general is it's on the summit of a large hill with no major cross streets, just local residential streets. I'm sure there is a market for conferences and small conventions in Lawrence, this just is not the place. Most convention centers are in downtowns and near the river perhaps at the old LJ World print plant site would be good. If one would go in on the KU campus it should be along Iowa, around 23rd and Iowa where there are major cross streets to get in and out. The wild card location would be the proposed Delaware "reservation" and a casino resort, or even a distant runner up, the Clinton Lake resort that was proposed.

    EJ Mulligan 10 months ago

    Off topic, but really want to know. Chad, whatever has happened to the specialty butcher that was going to locate at 19th and Mass?

    Chad Lawhorn 10 months ago

    I think it is still moving forward. A building permit has been pulled for the site. Thanks, Chad

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