Should Wichita bulldoze what’s on its postcards in an effort to attract more visitors, specifically convention-goers? That’s the unexpected and, for some, alarming question about Century II soon to be answered at City Hall.
The blue-domed circular building that is the 44-year-old core of the Century II Performing Arts and Convention Center is the city’s most iconic architectural image. It’s also the vital heart of the city’s performing arts, as home to the Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Music Theatre of Wichita and Wichita Grand Opera and host of touring Broadway shows.
Yet a consultant hired by the Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau had harsh words last week for the “very atypical” round building, as he laid out how the city might attract more of the 3,300 annually rotating events in the national convention market.
The 16-year-old Hyatt Regency Wichita is great, said Conventions, Sports and Leisure International’s Bill Krueger, though it could use 100 more hotel rooms.
But Bob Brown Expo Hall, added in 1986, doesn’t have the contiguous square footage and 30-foot high ceilings that convention planners want, Krueger said. Where 150,000 prime square footage of exhibit space is needed, Century II has only 63,500. It needs a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and another 30,000 square feet of meeting space. His report also cited the entire facility’s dated aesthetics and substandard functionality, capabilities and amenities.
And he said the “co-accommodation of conventions and arts” at Century II is a problem – not the perfect fit that city leaders and voters envisioned in the 1960s.
Surveying convention planners, the consultant concluded that the national market holds the most potential for Wichita. But capturing more of it will require industry-standard convention facilities, the report concluded. It outlined three scenarios: Do nothing. Build a new convention center while adding hotel rooms and renovating the round building to serve the arts solely. Or redevelop the entire Century II site while adding hotel rooms (and accommodating the arts’ needs either on site or elsewhere).
The last scenario would hold the most potential, the consultant projected, doubling nonlocal attendance to 122,000 and generating a $49.4 million economic impact (compared with $19.7 million now).
The Wichita City Council will have to gauge the community’s willingness to pay for such a massive construction project, however, perhaps through a sales-tax hike. The timing will strike many as suspect, given that the council just indefinitely postponed a new downtown library because of concerns about debt and also has pressing infrastructure needs.
On Nov. 19 the council is expected to select a design team to flesh out the consultant’s report with schematic designs and cost estimates – a process promised to involve community input. Then would come a cost-benefit analysis and council decision.
The coming debate will need to consider the shortcomings of Century II as an arts facility, too, including its limited backstage wing space and notorious problem of sound bleeding between halls.
“Oh, there’s that blue dome again,” Krueger told the editorial board, recalling his first impression on returning to Wichita recently.
Citizens will need to be heard as city officials decide whether “that blue dome” is so much in the way of Wichita’s future as a convention mecca that it should be reduced to rubble.