City of Wichita plans repairs for Century II, debates major overhaul

04/03/2012 1:55 PM

04/03/2012 1:55 PM

Wichita has a gleaming new arena downtown, but the 40-year-old Century II convention hall 10 blocks away is showing its age with cracks, leaks and broken seats. For a couple years, the city has sat on a roughly $450 million plan to expand the Expo Hall and build a new performing arts center.

City Manager Robert Layton said that proposal probably will remain shelved until the economy improves and downtown Wichita shows an expanded convention hall would be worth it.

Meanwhile, the building may get $22 million in upgrades and repairs over the next few years.

The City Council is poised to vote Feb. 2 on a list of long-term capital projects at Century II, including new seats in the concert hall.

"Right now, our facilities are, I'd say, substandard," said council member Lavonta Williams, whose district includes Century II. "I think that most of those improvements are things that are necessary."

The repairs come as city officials increasingly focus on the importance of major conventions to encourage downtown development and promote the city to outsiders.

Meanwhile the city is considering a bevy of tax incentives that could bring a new hotel to the nearby WaterWalk — a move largely aimed at providing more beds for larger conventions.

Council member Paul Gray agrees that Century II needs significant renovations and still has a lot of life left in it.

But he, like Layton, hasn't seen evidence to justify a major expansion. It's just a big idea with no funding, he said.

"We need to digest the arena and see how that affects our community," he said. "And we need to digest the (economic) recovery, whenever that happens."

Not surprisingly, some groups that call the facility home are excited about even some small improvements.

Century II, which opened in January 1969, houses three convention/exhibition areas, a concert hall, a theater and administrative offices.

Workers there say it has been well maintained, but the money they've received only goes so far.

During a walk-through of the building, Bernadette Bradshaw, a management assistant, pointed out heavily scuffed wooden doors, cracked concrete, torn seats and water-stained windows.

"We call this the fishbowl," she joked, looking up at some leaky windows above the primary entrance to the Bob Brown Expo Hall, which was built in 1986.

New windows and about 60 electrical floor boxes that provide connections for convention booths could cost as much as $440,000, according to some initial estimates.

The biggest single project — $5 million — would likely come in about three years at Kennedy Plaza, which buffers Century II from Douglas Avenue.

The plaza's cracking concrete would be torn out and replaced. It's likely the plaza would also get a little more vegetation and a new fountain, said John D'Angelo, director of the city's arts and culture services division.

The second-most-expensive item is redoing the circular blue roof that is featured in many images of downtown Wichita.

New sound systems, new doors, chairs, tables, computers and other equipment also are planned.

But perhaps the most requested change is new seats in the concert hall.

The older seats slide when you sit in them, allowing more room for people to walk by to their seats. But the seats are falling apart and are difficult to fix because some of their parts are hard to come by, Bradshaw said.

Nearly a year ago, Music Theatre asked patrons whether they would be willing to pay an extra 50 cents or $1 per ticket for the summer 2010 season to help raise money for new seats.

Out of 3,720 surveys, 1,734 patrons said they'd pay an extra $1 per ticket and 378 were willing to pay an extra 50 cents.

Another 687 people said they did not want to pay extra for seating. Others didn't respond.

Now the city is poised to invest in new seats, and it's not expected to drive up ticket prices.

Mitch Berman, executive director of the Wichita Symphony, and Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director of Music Theatre of Wichita, also see other needs, such as renovations that prevent sound generated by some Century II activities from bleeding into other areas of the complex.

Both said they're grateful for proposed improvements and still enjoy working at Century II.

"It's turned out to be a very versatile facility," Bryan said.

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