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Compton says he thinks convention center would be good addition to downtown Lawrence

I wonder if Lawrence businessman Doug Compton is becoming the E.F. Hutton of downtown Lawrence.

Oh, what’s that? You don’t remember popular television commercials from the 1970s? (My understanding is that there are large swaths of Lawrence’s population who lived through the 1970s but for some reason don’t remember them.)

Anyway, E.F. Hutton was a prominent investment firm that ran television commercials with the tag line: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Given that Compton, and groups that he leads, are spending tens of millions of dollars to remake the intersection of Ninth and New Hampshire with multi-story buildings, it is feasible to think that when Doug Compton talks about downtown, people are listening.

If so, here’s a statement you may want to take notice of: “It would be great to have a convention center in downtown Lawrence,” Compton said. “I would love to see that.”

Compton last week was answering a question as part of a panel hosted by the Lawrence commercial real estate office of Colliers International. Compton was answering a question about what he would like to see in downtown Lawrence in the future.

He didn’t go into any detail about a downtown convention center, such as how large it should be or where it should be located. There are no Lawrence convention center plans on the front burner at Lawrence City Hall that I’m aware of, but it is easy to see how the idea could get some discussion in the foreseeable future. When Compton’s group completes his Marriott hotel project at Ninth and New Hampshire streets, there will be three, full-service, upscale hotels in downtown: The Eldridge; SpringHill Suites by Marriott; and the new extended stay Marriott that Compton’s project will build. Plus, The Eldridge also operates an extended stay hotel project at Eighth and Vermont streets, and has a vacant lot next to The Eldridge that it has talked about expanding into. All of those projects would be within walking distance of a downtown convention center.

It also is worth noting that Compton is a part of the group that recently took over the long-term lease for the city-owned Abe & Jake’s building. Downtown nightclub owner Mike Logan will run the day-to-operations of that facility, and he has told me that one of the goals is to get more weekday, daytime meeting business into the unique building along the Kansas River. It might be a bit of a stretch to call the building — which can accommodate around 700 people — a convention center, but it certainly will give the group a taste of what it takes to attract large meetings, trade shows and such to the city.

Lawrence architect Mike Treanor — who has been a partner with Compton on several projects — echoed Compton’s sentiments about a convention center.

“A convention center is a terrific idea,” Treanor said.

But he also reminded the crowd that convention centers are they type of project that require some public investment. The city recently has shown willingness to invest in downtown through use of tax increment financing and a special transportation development district that will allow future tax dollars to help pay for infrastructure related to the Ninth and New Hampshire projects.

“To do infrastructure in downtown is so much more expensive than to do it on a greenfield site on the edge of town,” Treanor said. “But Lawrence has a good attitude right now about those type of tools.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Compton and Treanor were really trying to lay the groundwork for some sort of convention center proposal in the near future. I think they were just asked a question and answered it, and maybe there was a little bit of seed planing going on as well. Regardless, it is interesting to think about.

The question of downtown’s future needs also drew an interesting response from Downtown Lawrence Inc. director Cathy Hamilton. She told the crowd that Downtown Lawrence Inc. would love to see a dedicated downtown Lawrence visitors center.

The association currently has a second-story office in downtown, but Hamilton believes a full-fledged visitors center with maps, brochures and friendly people to help point visitors in the right direction could be a real asset to downtown tourism.

“Something on the ground level where people can find a human point of contact,” Hamilton said. “It is our dream at this point, but it is something we’re working on.”

For what it is worth, Compton also used the forum to chime in on the proposed recreation center and sports park near the northeast corner of Sixth Street and the South Lawrence Trafficway. He made it clear that he didn’t think the sports park and the associated development that may occur around it would hurt downtown Lawrence. In fact, he thinks the edge-of-town development ultimately will help downtown.

“I think it will be a big asset to downtown,” Compton said. “It will bring more people to town who wouldn’t be here otherwise.

“Obviously, we’re getting ready to invest $17 million or $18 million in a Marriott, so we are excited about having more people come and stay in hotel rooms. Whenever people come to Lawrence, they always end up in downtown. I don’t think that is going to change.”

Compton — who also runs Lawrence’s First Management Construction Co. — didn’t get into any other details of the project, including what he thinks of a proposal that would allow Lawrence businessman and fellow construction executive Thomas Fritzel to match any construction bids received for the proposed recreation center.

It would be interesting to hear thoughts on that subject, but so far no area construction company has publicly chimed in on the topic.

Just as well, I’ve been busy recently sending off my investment checks to E.F. Hutton. What’s that? Son of . . . No, I hadn’t heard that E.F. Hutton is dead.

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