October 13, 2013

How can Century II become a convention contender?

What to do with Century II? The aging 1960s facility lacks sufficient exhibit space and technological amenities to be a serious player in the increasingly competitive Midwest convention market, local government and tourism officials say. There’s no easy answer for city officials. They already face huge bills to rehabilitate the city’s sewer, water and street systems after years of deferred maintenance.

Add one more multimillion-dollar dilemma to City Hall’s ever-growing list of expensive to-do’s:

What to do with Century II?

The aging 1960s facility lacks sufficient exhibit space and technological amenities to be a serious player in the increasingly competitive Midwest convention market, local government and tourism officials say.

There’s no easy answer for city officials. They already face huge bills — billions — to rehabilitate the city’s sewer, water and street systems after years of deferred maintenance. And there’s significant political opposition to the spending necessary to solve any of those issues.

Publicly, city and tourism officials say they’re waiting for the results of a market study due in about a month. That study should cast more light on where Wichita can fit in to a regional convention market dominated by cities like Overland Park and Oklahoma City, which have newer, large, high-tech exhibition and meeting facilities.

Privately, those officials say that without a significant infusion of money at Century II, Wichita’s future as a convention destination is bleak.

“I’m under no illusions that we’re going to get 10,000 people and their conferences to Wichita,” council member Janet Miller said. “But there’s some range of convention size we should be competitive for ... and there’s no question that Century II needs either a serious upgrade or an entire replacement.”

There’s no public consensus among council members about Century II’s future.

Some say that expansion of the convention space is the best option.

And land is available to the west toward the Arkansas River and A. Price Woodard Park, although any expansion could spell the end of the park and require the costly relocation of Century II’s heating and air machinery.

Bringing convention traffic to the Arkansas River would fit neatly into Project Downtown, the city’s master plan for downtown redevelopment that emphasizes “activating” the river.

Others favor a scrape and build: Knock it all down, and build state-of-the-art performing arts and convention space.

Still others say the big, round Century II building is untouchable.

“That can’t happen,” Mayor Carl Brewer said about flattening Century II. “It’s an iconic piece of architecture in a city that doesn’t have a lot of that. We’re going to need another solution.”

The state of Century II

For a 45-year-old building, Century II looks good to the naked eye. The city has invested just under $5 million in recent years in upkeep and improvements, most in the performing arts parts of the building — the round part — tailored toward landing the “Lion King” performances in 2012. Those performances were “indeed profitable” to the city, said Century II general manager John D’Angelo, although he didn’t say how profitable.

About 30 conventions generating about 40,000 attendees now come through Century II annually, D’Angelo said.

But stark numbers factor into the building’s future as a convention hub: Century II has 62,500 square feet of contiguous exhibition space, roughly a fourth of what Overland Park can offer and a little more than a third of what Oklahoma City is building.

The expo hall actually has 92,000 square feet of exhibit space, but only 62,500 square feet has the 32-foot ceilings that most exhibitors want for banners and ceiling displays, D’Angelo said. The design of Century II cuts 18 feet off that ceiling space for about 19,000 square feet.

And although the city’s hotel room census, particularly downtown, is increasing – another important factor in recruiting conventions – the hodgepodge of disconnected space Century II can offer beyond the exhibition hall is a huge negative, D’Angelo said.

So the city is forced to spread bigger gatherings out into the performing arts area of Century II – a move that’s morphing rapidly into a negative, D’Angelo said, because the round building is essentially a series of performing halls built around a circular hub.

“The problem is, all of those spaces are pie-shaped,” he said. “That creates an issue with the size of the spaces we can subdivide.”

And then there’s the building’s electrical infrastructure, a network of outlets unsuitable for modern convention and Internet needs.

“We have to meet the current industry challenges, and I don’t know that we do that with the buildings we have,” council member Lavonta Williams said. “We have to stay in the game.”

So Go Wichita, the city’s convention and tourism arm, has launched the first phase of a study to pinpoint Wichita’s niche in the regional convention market – and the facilities needed to compete in that market.

“Really what we’re looking for is a utilization profile,” said Go Wichita president Susie Santo. “We’re looking at demand. How can we position ourselves for growth and become competitive as we see the tier 2 cities do that around us? How do we keep Wichita competitive?”

The competition

Understanding the Century II dilemma begins with understanding the competition along the I-35 corridor. Cities are spending millions to get in the convention game, and they’re getting results.

The shining convention star in the corridor is Overland Park, where a decade ago the city built 237,000 square feet of convention space along with a Sheraton hotel.

The Overland Park facility runs at an annual profit, an anomaly in a business where convention centers run at annual deficits – Wichita’s is close to $1.5 million now.

“It’s intensely competitive right now, because our business has been bad for a lot of bigger cities since 2009 and 2010,” said Kelly Peetoom director of sales for the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau. “So a lot of them are competing hard for the groups we’ve normally hosted.”

Mike Carrier, president of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau, says flatly that his city wants the same kind of success Overland Park has enjoyed.

Saddled with a landlocked 100,000 square feet of convention space at the Cox Convention Center, once known as the Myriad, the city is finalizing plans to grow its convention space, Carrier said.

“You’ve got to spend money to stay in the game, no doubt about it,” Carrier said. “The newer buildings in places like Shreveport, La., Overland Park, have put them right in the game and they work. Shoot, Overland Park is competing and winning a lot of battles against downtown Kansas City.”

Plans in Oklahoma City tentatively call for 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, expandable to 300,000 square feet, with dedicated meeting space as large as 50,000 square feet – also expandable – and a 35,000-square-foot ballroom.

“This is going to allow us to shoot for a targeted market,” Carrier said. “At 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, we can reasonably compete for 85 percent of the conventions in the United States each year.”

At 100,000 square feet today – still a third more than Wichita can offer at Century II – Oklahoma City is only in the hunt for a “small percentage of those conventions, well less than 50 percent,” Carrier said.

“The challenge we have in our current building is twofold,” he said. “The small size in terms of exhibit space prevents us from going after a lot of business, yes, but where it really hurts is concurrent or consecutive meetings. The most successful buildings in the country, whether they’re 200,000 or 2 million square feet, are buildings that can roll meetings in one right after the other or host two to five of them concurrently. We have to be able to do that.”

Wichita’s path forward

After survey results are in, the city will bring in designers and architects to take a look at Century II and develop plans to meet the city’s market demand for conventions.

Doing nothing is not an option, Brewer said.

“We can’t afford to drop out of the game. The economy can’t handle it,” the mayor said.

But Brewer, Miller and Williams are clear on one point: They need to hear from the public about where the convention business – outside money – fits in the community’s priorities.

That’s where City Manager Robert Layton’s ACT ICT, launched this fall with a series of 100 community meetings to assess the city’s capital improvement priorities by the end of the year, fits in – to provide that input.

Council members are confident Wichita can carve out a niche in the regional convention market.

“We’ve been trying to get the message out about the challenges we face, and this is certainly one of them,” Brewer said. “We have organizations right now that want to bring conventions here and we can’t handle them. At one point in time, the problem was hotel space but we’ve addressed a lot of that. Now, we’re at a point where we have to have convention space.”

“Do we keep on doing a little bit every year with the CIP (city’s annual capital improvement’s program) or do we look for additional funding?” Miller asked.

“Clearly, we can’t do all that needs to be done at Century II with our CIP, and with the current taxing environment. But if you look at what other communities have done, their citizens have prioritized and funded these things through property taxes and sales taxes, and there may be other options out there.”

The biggest challenge before the council is fitting a multimillion-dollar convention center project into the rapidly mounting tab for the city’s other must-do projects: $2.1 billion for water and sewer line repairs (spread over decades), the cost of an additional water source, ongoing street improvements and changes to the city’s transit system.

It’s a big and costly list for a council adamantly opposed – for now – to raising property taxes.

“I think we’re coming up on a seminal time in this community where we’re going to have to make a decision,” Miller said. “Do we continue in the vein we’re in, to fall behind in capital improvements, or do we rally around figuring out how to fund essential things and move ahead as a city?”

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