The consensus of the special Great Bend City Council meeting Tuesday night to discuss the beleaguered Convention Center was that the center needed major improvements. It was also feared that the existing attached hotel placed a drag on facility.
However, whether the city should launch a multi-million-dollar project to renovate the existing center or spend the slightly more to build new remained unclear.
Held at the city-owned center and billed as a public comment session, the meeting had a town hall feel to it as about 50 local residents joined council members and other city officials. The citizens sat first through a presentation by Scott Bixler and Jason Wenzel of the Wichita architectural firm WDM, then asked questions and offered up their input.
“If we are going to do this, let’s do this right,” said audience member John Francis. “We want this to be something we can be proud of.”
This, he said, would be worth the extra money and time it would take. He was referring to the idea of building a new center, possible at another location.
But, there were other points of view. “You still have a good structure here,” said Loren Unruh, owner of the Best Western Angus Inn.
“We need to refurbish the inside until we see how things play out,” he said. We may have to “cut our dreams down,” but it is still better to fix up the existing center to the point that the city is not ashamed of it.
Pointing to an aerial photo of the center as it stands, artist’s renditions of WDM’s proposals and slide show, Bixler walked those present through what has been a long process.
The firm came to the council last year with its initial, $3.5 million plan to remodel the center. This included dividing up the convention space into four large rooms, adding new bathrooms and meeting rooms and remodeling the lobby to include a fireplace. The corridor along the north side of the building would also be widened six feet to make the space more usable.
However, in November, city officials told the architects that they needed to keep the cost at or below $2.5 million. They returned with a slightly stripped down version of their original proposal which met the cost requirement.
Even with the reductions, Wenzel said the city would get a fine facility. “We’re still getting the curb appeal.”
Neither estimate included “soft costs,” such as fixtures, furniture and architectural fees.
In what Bixler called a “pie-in-the-sky” option, he suggested a new building and hotel. Without new lodging to compliment the center, “you will be known for what is here and what is over there,” he said of the current adjoining privately held Highland Hotel.
Much discussion Tuesday night centered around the condition of the hotel. City officials and some in the crowd told of negative comments about the Highland’s condition and bad experiences had there.
Even a Great Bend Convention and Visitor’s Bureau study indicated that remodeling the center without a greatly improved hotel would be a mistake. “Great Bend is well thought of, but the property (the Highland) is rendering Great Bend undesirable and uncompetative,” the study said.
Bixler wondered if it could be improved enough to not hinder the center’s progress.
A new center/hotel complex would require about six acres. Bixler said the center would cost about $170-180 per square foot and the motel about $64-65,000 per room.
So, a 20,000-square-foot center would cost in the ballpark of $3.6 million. A 90-room hotel would cost about $5.8 million.
That excludes the soft costs and the land. And, the architects said these are merely concepts with the details and exact costs coming out in the design development phase.
Another option is what Unruh mentioned. City Administrator Howard Partington said city personnel have done some minor repairs to the center, which was built in the 1980s.
He didn’t have any cost estimates for what it would take to make the needed improvements. However, to replace the heating, air conditioning and electrical systems would run about $800,000, and it would still be an old building.
“We’ve had a heck of a wrestling match with this,” said Mayor Mike Allison.
Questions from the floor brought out that the center books about 12-15 conventions per year and that conventions make up about 20 percent of the total business with the rest coming from community events, such as weddings and meetings. But, it was noted, even some of those local activities require motel rooms.
It was noted by an audience member that part of the original vision for the center was that it close to the city’s business district. “It has to stay on 10th Street,” they said.
There is a chance that a refurbished or new center would lure more gatherings. But, this would take time and marketing
Parking will remain a problem at the current site.
Allison said the trend is for municipalities to own their convention centers. This is the case in Dodge City, Newton and Junction City.
“They probably won’t turn a profit,” he said. But, the business they generate for the surrounding restaurants and other businesses is the real draw.
Council member Ken Roberts got to the bottom line. “Will the community support this? Will the taxpayers support this?”
A $3.5 million project would raise the mill levy four mills, with each mill bringing in about $94,000. Although the city has the funds to make minor repairs, it would have to issue bonds to cover the more extensive project.
The city has not looked at any other sites and has not priced land.
“This is a real tough decision,” Bixler said.
Partington said he would come back to a council meeting in the near future with more solid number. He invited the public to attend that meeting as well.
The city used $500,000 donated by an anonymous group of local residents to purchase the convention center in 2011. It has been grappling with what to do with it ever since.