If Wichita expects to land more and bigger conventions, it will need to do better than the current Century II. But Mayor Carl Brewer is right that razing the iconic saucer-shaped 45-year-old civic center “can’t happen.”
That would be favoring potential visitors over Century II’s primary tenants – the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Music Theatre of Wichita and Wichita Grand Opera – and their thousands of loyal patrons, many of whom drive long distances to enjoy performances. Bulldozing Century II also would unfairly minimize the performing arts’ value to downtown’s ongoing revival, as well as to the city’s history and cultural identity.
Century II was approved by voters in 1961 as a modern replacement for the 1910-vintage Wichita Forum and “built to serve two masters – the arts and business,” as The Eagle put it in 1969. In recent years, the arts tenants and their supporters have helped veto proposals to sell Century II to a casino developer or privatize its management.
That said, Century II lacks sufficient exhibit space and technological amenities to be a top contender in the fiercely competitive Midwest convention market and to add to its average 30 conventions and 40,000 attendees a year. The results of a market study, due in about a month, will be telling – and important to the necessary debate about how best to improve Wichita’s drawing power. With the new convention center in Overland Park offering exhibitors 237,000 square feet and Oklahoma City planning to offer 300,000, Century II’s 62,500 square feet aren’t measuring up.
It seems likely that another expansion will be necessary, just as the Bob Brown Expo Hall was added in 1986 and the Hyatt Regency Wichita in 1997. Land between Century II and the Arkansas River could be a target, though it would be hard to sacrifice A. Price Woodard Park. Depending on when (or whether) the City Council proceeds with a new Central Library at First and McLean, that current site east of Century II could be available.
The public will need to be heard, through the new ACT ICT engagement process and otherwise. As it is, such a construction project seems a stretch financially, considering that the City Council recently deferred the new library over concerns about bond debt. And as Kansas City, Mo., has found out, even if you build costly new facilities, the conventions may not come; amid stiff competition, that city’s 21 major conventions a year from 2003 to 2012 have declined to 15 this year and 16 for 2014.
At least for now, it seems like any winning convention strategy for Wichita should mean expansion of Century II, rather than its replacement. Especially after having weathered the Great Recession and the death of the Kansas Arts Commission, Wichita’s leading performing arts organizations should not have to worry now about being displaced by the city’s zeal to attract more conventions.