Newton readies for conventions

NEWTON — In a matter of days, the first serious dirt will be turned as Newton jumps with both feet into the convention and tourism business.

Work was scheduled to begin late this week on the city's first convention center and hotel at I-35 and Broadway.

The convention center will be managed by Kemper Sports Management, the firm that runs the city's Sand Creek Station golf course.

It's the culmination of almost eight years of planning as the city ramps up its pursuit of tourism business for Newton and for the region.

The 70-room Holiday Inn and 15,000-square-foot convention center should be open sometime next summer, officials said. The facility will include an indoor pool and business center.

"The standard byline here has been expanded meeting and celebration space for a lot of events," said Jim Schwarzenberger, executive director of the Newton Area Chamber of Commerce.

"But I really think we have a terrific market opportunity to draw in small- to medium-sized conferences and conventions from people in this part of the country more comfortable about a community of our size.

"We're still within reach of the amenities to the south and our community's amenities are very accessible.... We think the combination gives us a competitive advantage."

The facility, to be built by Wichita contractor Carrico Construction, is one of two new hotels coming on line in Newton — a 70-room Comfort Inn opens in November.

The Holiday Inn developers include Tim Johnson, Shawn Penner and Todd Kasitz. Johnson owns a Holiday Inn Express in Andover.

"Our original market analysis back in 2002 or 2003 indicated we could do about 50 events a year," said Tim Johnson, Newton's assistant city manager, and not related to the hotel developer.

"We're looking at double that, not just business meetings, conferences and social events. Kemper Sports is developing a business plan for producing their own events ... and they've proven both quality and quantity with Sand Creek Station."

Johnson, the assistant city manager, said city officials have been surprised by the corporate demand for the convention center and hotel.

"One example is our airport," he said. "Some of our employers there have people come in and work for weeks and months on a project. They're housing those people in Wichita and Park City now, and those are constant work nights by the week."

He also sees sporting events feeding the center, including Newton High School events, the annual National Junior College Athletic Association basketball tournament in Hutchinson and Sand Creek Station events.

The center will be a good addition to the region's inventory of hotel rooms and convention space, said John Rolfe, president of Go Wichita.

"Newton is obviously very close by and there are several sporting events and conventions that do take up a number of rooms in our surrounding area," Rolfe said. "Their center could be a major player in that regard.

"An example is Mid-America Youth Basketball, which takes up most of the hotel rooms as far away as Newton and beyond. I think their facility can play an important role as we land these events, and it's a good partnership as well."