Wichita could gain millions in revenue if it builds a new convention center, officials say

Add one more major item to Wichita’s extensive list of downtown projects.

Along with the new baseball stadium complex being built ($83 million) and talk of a new performing arts center (expected to be more than $175 million), officials with Visit Wichita want to ensure the convention-center isn’t forgotten.

Century II is hampering the city’s efforts to attract new conventions — which need modern, industry-standard facilities — to town, says the convention and visitors bureau.

And the city could be losing out on $40 million in would-be convention spending on a yearly basis because of it, suggested a 2016 city-commissioned study.

Judging from similar projects in other cities and past estimates, the project could cost millions, though no official cost estimates have been released.

If Wichita decides to pursue a new convention center, it would join a host of other cities across the country racing to build state-of-the-art facilities in hopes that they, too, can break into the lucrative convention business.

In 2016, conventions, trade shows, consumer events and business meetings generated $325 billion in direct spending in the United States alone, according to industry statistics.

Wichita officials hope a new convention center — which, if built, would likely be done in collaboration with a proposed new performing arts facility — would help the city capture more of those dollars.

“The city has accepted the fact that we need to do something with (the convention center),” said John D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services. “There are regional groups that unfortunately right now overlook us and choose other places, and our facility is part of it.”

Why doesn’t Century II work anymore?

Since opening in 1969, Century II has served as Wichita’s primary convention center.

An expansion in 1986 resulted in the addition of the 93,000-square-foot Bob Brown Expo Hall on the south side of the building.

Then in 1997, the construction of the Hyatt Regency Wichita gave the convention center its official headquarter hotel.

Century II offers about 170,000 square feet of flat floor space for conventions, split between its Expo, Exhibition and Convention halls.

The problem: About two-thirds of that space is not “prime” square footage for convention planners, consultants have told the city.

Modern event planners like subdividable rectangular spaces with high ceilings.

Both the Exhibition and Convention halls — inside the round portion of Century II — are pie-shaped, making them hard to sell, D’Angelo said.

And in the Expo Hall, about a third of the space is under 14-feet-high ceilings and littered with concrete pillars.

So out of Century II’s 200,000 square feet of convention space, only 63,500 square feet — all in Expo Hall — is considered “prime exhibit space” to today’s convention planner.

That puts Wichita behind other cities in the region that offer more prime square footage, including Tulsa (102,600 square feet), Des Moines (146,900 square feet) and Omaha (194,300 square feet).

Also, because Expo Hall cannot be divided into separate spaces, it limits the amount of events that can booked concurrently in the hall — forcing Century II to turn down potential business on occasion, D’Angelo said.

‘We’re at a competitive disadvantage’

In total, the amount of conventions Wichita is able to land has declined in recent years “and we’ve seen it continues to decline,” D’Angelo said.

“We do know part of the reason we don’t get them is because of the building,” he said. “A lot of times we can’t meet space requirements and can’t meet the expectations of event planners.”

It’s not exactly a revelation for city officials — who have been told since 2013 by paid consultants that Century II in its current configuration holds the city back in attracting these sorts of events.

But is Century II the only problem?

Convention planners look for a variety of things when finding a host city. Availability of hotels, parking, food, and airfare can play into the decision as much as the suitability of the venue itself.

Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said Wichita has enough amenities to be a draw for planners, adding that when one of her staff is able to bring an event planner to town, they may “have them all the way up until they set foot on the facility and (find) it doesn’t meet their needs.”

“When we get a meeting planner here and they … experience the hospitality, they see the unique off-sites that we have, they see the ease of connecting from the airport to downtown, they see the ease of getting from the hotel to the convention center, the Q-Line – a lot of those things are big draws,” Santo said. “But in today’s facility, many times when we walk into the convention center we lose out.”

Aside from businesses on the “rotating schedule” like the Kansas Livestock Association and the Kansas Health Care Association, most new business comes from Visit Wichita’s sales staff, which regularly prospects potential events and pitches them on Wichita, Santo said.

D’Angelo and Visit Wichita maintain a list of events that Wichita has tried to attract to town, and D’Angelo estimates that for every 20 to 30 proposals sent, “we probably win between two to five.” Most of those, he says, are regional — not national — events.

Visit Wichita officials declined to share its list with The Eagle, saying it doesn’t want other regional cities knowing what kind of events Wichita is trying to lure.

“Right now with our facilities, it’s very difficult and we’re at a competitive disadvantage,” she said. “If you look around at all of our peer cities in the region — Omaha, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Des Moines, even Overland Park — all of them have addressed the needs with their convention centers in the last 20 years.”

Santo likened the convention business to “a very large pie” — “We need a small sliver to have a significant economic impact.”

“There is a strong demand to come, especially in those markets that make sense for us — aviation, agriculture, health care, some of those key industries that are important for the region,” she said. “The reality of it is if we had the facilities, that not only would make us compete in the region, but that puts us on the map for those national draws.

“That’s where the huge growth opportunity is.”

What do we need?

Officials are hoping a facility that meets modern industry standards will help the city capture what they see as lost dollars.

A convention center that meets modern industry standards includes the following attributes:

  • At least 150,000 square feet of contiguous square footage, which can be subdivided by “air walls” — movable barriers used to partition large areas.
  • At least 30,000 square feet of ballroom space and another 30,000 square feet of meeting rooms.
  • Connection to a headquarter hotel – in this case, the Hyatt Regency Wichita.

Because of the required attachment to the Hyatt, a new convention center would have to be constructed in the same general area that the Bob Brown Expo Hall occupies now. It would also be near-impossible to relocate the convention center elsewhere in downtown because of the sheer space it would occupy.

D’Angelo said there have been talks about what it would look like if Expo Hall could be expanded out to Main Street, though those are preliminary discussions.

The Hyatt Regency Wichita, as the designated headquarter hotel, will play a key role in whatever convention center solution is proposed.

The initial 2013 study on Century II indicated that an ideal headquarter hotel should have 400 rooms — 97 more than the Hyatt offers currently. That same study posited building a second tower at the Hyatt Regency to accommodate those additional rooms, though it’s unclear if that remains an option.

Since then, the downtown hotel has been sold to billionaire casino magnate Phil Ruffin, who must maintain the Hyatt flag through 2026.

Messages left with Hyatt general manager Chris Ruffin’s office were not returned.

The study also said there need to be 500 “committable hotel rooms” within close walking distance and 1,000 rooms total within a half-mile.

When the 120-room Hilton Garden Inn at Douglas and Topeka opens, it will push Wichita over that 1,000-room threshold.

A “state-of-the-art convention center to host local, regional and national events” ranked as Project Wichita’s second-highest “quality of place” priority in a report released in January. That group surveyed nearly 14,000 Wichitans and heard from more than 249 focus groups.

How do we compare to other cities?

Just a couple hours to the south, a new convention center is currently being built in Oklahoma City.

The center, which had a total budget of $288 million – including land acquisition costs – is set to open in 2020.

It, along with seven other major quality-of-life projects in Oklahoma City, was funded by a 1-cent sales tax initiative from 2010 to 2017 that raised $777 million for capital improvements.

Oklahoma City’s new convention center has a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, 45,000 square feet of meeting space and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom. It will be connected to a newly built 605-room headquarter hotel, and it’s opening alongside a new 70-acre downtown park.

The new convention center is the largest single project in the history of Oklahoma City (metro population roughly 1.2 million).

When it comes online, the city’s 1972-built Cox Convention Center will likely be redeveloped, according to KGOU, the city’s NPR station. That convention center had 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, a 25,000-square-foot ballroom and a 15,000-seat arena that has hosted concerts and minor-league sports teams.

Tulsa (metro population 991,000) is currently remodeling its 1964-built Cox Business Center, which plays host to the city’s major conventions.

The $55 million overhaul, which will be completed in 2020, will add a three-story lobby and convert an old arena into a 40,000-square-foot ballroom.

The Tulsa convention center’s assistant general manager Kerry Painter told the Tulsa World the renovations were being done to avoid losing out in the “hyper-competitive convention business,” the newspaper reported.

Here’s how other cities in the region stack up, in terms of convention and event spaces:

  • Omaha: CHI Health Center, built in 2003 for $205 million. 194,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 63,000 square feet of meeting spaces, 30,000-square-foot ballroom. 333-room Marriott adjacent. Metro population: 975,000
  • Overland Park: Overland Park Convention Center, built in 2002 for about $53 million. 60,000-square-foot exhibition hall, eight meeting rooms, 25,000-square-foot ballroom. 412-room Sheraton attached. Population: 188,000 (as suburb of Kansas City)
  • Des Moines: Iowa Events Center, built in 2005 for $217 million. 150,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 226,000 square feet of meeting spaces, 28,800-square-foot ballroom. 330-room Hilton attached. Metro population: 645,911
  • St. Louis: America’s Center Convention Complex, built in 1977 for $34 million. 502,000 square feet of prime exhibit space, 80 meeting rooms, 28,000-square-foot ballroom. Five hotels within a couple blocks. Metro population: 2.8 million

Wichita has a metro population of roughly 644,000, putting it on par with Des Moines and behind Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

What happens now

The futures of a new convention center and a new performing arts center in downtown Wichita are intertwined, Santo said.

Santo said the “next step” is to determine how the two buildings could work together in the existing footprint.

“It’s an exciting point we’re at as a community,” she said. “When we invest in a convention center, we’re investing in the community and we’re investing in our future.

“We’re the largest city in Kansas and we should have a pretty awesome structure that’s worthy of people coming from all over the country to come to.”

D’Angelo said that, while “the city continues to have an interest in trying to do something, ... there’s more work that needs to be done as to how it fits within the site and, then, how it gets paid for is still another question I don’t know we have the answer to.”

Last month, the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee recommended that the City Council, within 60 days, issue a request for proposals for site selection and concept development for a new performing arts center.

Mayor Jeff Longwell at the time expressed skepticism at that timeline, saying moving so quickly on the project is “not possible.”

Mary Beth Jarvis, who chaired the committee — which examined performing-arts issues at Century II — also recommended the council consider exploring “a possible referendum for a city- or county-wide public funding initiative.”

Jarvis at the time said that referendum could be limited to a performing-arts facility or broadened to include “additional citizen priorities,” which would likely include a convention center.

As of yet, no firm plans have been proposed as to how to pay for either of these new buildings or even how they would look — though Santo said those discussions should start within the year.

Longwell, at the council meeting last month, said he would prefer any new performing arts center be privately funded and not paid for by a tax referendum. A new convention center was not discussed.

About a decade ago, Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena was built for $205 million, paid for by a 1-cent sales tax in effect from July 1, 2005 to Dec. 31, 2007 — the last major special tax-funded building constructed in town.

Cynthia Wentworth, vice president of marketing for Visit Wichita, said “the idea of our job is to bring the outside dollars in.”

“Tourism in Wichita alone every year is bringing $1.1 billion in economic impact,” she said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.