Go Wichita and city officials made a pitch Monday for the future of conventions in Wichita – a future that may or may not include the iconic 44-year-old Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center.
A new convention center in Wichita could generate up to $30 million annually in convention business, an independent study said.
If the city does nothing to update its facilities, convention business will decline, said Bill Krueger, a consultant with Conventions, Sports and Leisure International.
But if the city either flattens the Century II complex and replaces it with a state-of-the-art convention center or builds a new exhibition hall and turns over Century II to the performing arts, the city could realize a multimillion-dollar economic windfall, the report said.
Wichita does well at drawing conventions for in-state businesses, and it attracts some regional companies. It has an opportunity to attract more national convention business if it upgrades its facilities to compete with other communities, the report said.
Krueger dismissed the “blue dome” of Century II as outdated, lacking the aesthetics and functionality to draw significant convention business to Wichita – a net negative as recruiters try to land national conventions.
“My first impression when I drive into town is, ‘Oh, there’s that blue dome again,’ ” he said. “That’s what I remember from 20 years ago and that’s what I saw when I came back into town now. That’s fine for local people, but the national event planners ... that first impression can go a long way.”
At a public meeting Monday evening, Mayor Carl Brewer said a convention center is one of the focal points of Project Downtown, the master plan for center city revitalization.
“We’re working through each step to improve downtown,” he said.
To be competitive in drawing national convention business, Wichita needs 150,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space – more than double the 63,500 feet of prime exhibit space in the current exhibition hall, the report said. It needs a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and another 30,000 square feet of meeting space. In addition, the 303 hotel rooms in the Hyatt Regency are 100 rooms short of being enough. The city also needs 500 hotel rooms within close walking distance and a total of 1,000 hotel rooms within a half-mile of the convention center, the report said.
It recommends that the convention and performing arts functions “would be better served” in separate facilities, Krueger said.
The report offered three options:
How to pay for it?
The report includes no cost estimates. It does not suggest how the city – already struggling with a tight budget and major projects, including sewer and water repairs and saving the city’s transit system – would pay for a new convention center.
City Manager Robert Layton said that he envisions the convention center proposal as a long-term project, perhaps occurring within the next 10 years. Potential financing sources include a sales tax – also bandied about locally for a new downtown library, downtown revitalization and an upgraded transit operation, among others – or guest-tax revenue.
A property tax increase isn’t on the table, he said.
“It seems difficult to talk property taxes right now unless we go into a longer capital improvements plan,” Layton said.
The city has not committed to proceeding with major changes at Century II and may continue with annual, ongoing improvements. A detailed financial analysis will be required to determine whether a new convention center is even financially viable, Layton said.
The City Council will continue its commitment to the performing arts, Layton said, a commitment that Wayne Bryan, director of Music Theatre of Wichita, said he appreciates.
Go Wichita officials said any plan to demolish Century II and build a new facility would include a performing arts center on site. But Layton and Bryan disagreed, saying the site would be determined later. Layton said the current Century II site is an option, but there may be other attractive options, such as a riverfront site.
“As for location, I think we’re more concerned that, as one of the few in the nation who does both, we have adequate space for our education and our performance work,” Bryan said.
Next up in the convention planning process is the hiring of architects to produce schematic options for the new convention facility, with City Council approval of an architect scheduled for next week. Officials will then launch a cost/benefit analysis to determine costs for the various options, with a report scheduled tentatively for late winter.
Century II opened in 1969. The Bob Brown Exposition Center opened in 1986. The Hyatt Regency opened in 1997.