Group wants convention center for Hays

HAYS — An Ellis County task force is trying to find a viable way to bring a convention center to Hays as competition for convention business heats up across Kansas.

A task force formed by the Ellis County Coalition for Economic Development is first trying to bridge the gap between what a developer could provide and what the community might want in a convention center. And it is considering funding possibilities that would not leave the city with all the issues and risk.

"One of the things we're trying to do is identify to the community there is a need out here," said Mike Downing, president of Equity Bank in Ellis. "We have a gap. We have a problem."

Hays City Manager Toby Dougherty said talk about needing a convention center began about two years ago, shortly after the Hays Holiday Inn was sold to Ramada Inn. Complaints soon started about service and cleanliness at the hotel, where most conventions in Hays are held, he said.

Three proposals for convention centers were considered but eventually all fell apart, mostly because developers wanted the city to manage it, he said.

Little progress was made in the last two years, until Charlie Reese was appointed the coalition's interim director in January. The task force is composed of county and city staff, business people and Fort Hays State University representatives.

"The phase we're in now is the assessment, the review of what is between the needs, and try to propose a package the city thinks is reasonable... that doesn't give the city all the issues and all the risks," Reese said.

Funding mechanisms discussed have included establishing a community improvement district for the convention center project or instituting a higher transient guest tax.

Downing stressed the task force had not made any decisions and was still soliciting public input.

The task force is also concerned that other Kansas communities have either built new convention centers or are in the process of remodeling their existing centers. New convention centers have opened recently in Dodge City, Junction City and Manhattan, and the Bicentennial Center in Salina is being remodeled, Dougherty said.

Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Jana Jordan said fewer organizations are interested in locating their conventions in Hays, including groups that have regularly come to Hays. She said transient guest tax revenue has fallen about 6 percent each of the last two years.

The task force is examining possible locations from downtown to north of I-70, as well as reusing existing facilities. The task force needs to identify the project, the location and the need before discussing financial vehicles, Downing said.

Several Kansas convention centers have at least some level of public funding, including Hutchinson, which is owned and operated by the city, and Dodge City, which is privately operated but funded with a sales tax.