The Great Bend City Council had a simple agenda when it held a special meeting Saturday morning to discuss the city-owned convention center – decide how it wanted to run the facility, when it wanted to take it over and when to close it for much-needed renovations.
In talking with members of the Great Bend Convention and Visitors Bureau Board and community representatives Saturday, it did just that. The city will take over day-to-day operations on Jan. 1, 2013, the same day it will be shut down for construction. A coordinator will be hired by then to market and manage the center, and handle bookings after it reopens Aug. 1.
The coordinator will also have the authority to hire necessary full- or part-time help, or contract with firms to help when needed. The city will not operate a restaurant-like kitchen, instead opting for a warming kitchen and allow those booking an event to bring their own caterer.
“We are looked at as being responsible for the Convention Center,” council member Mitch Haney said. Calls are coming into the city from those wanting to book the facility and from those who donated to the city’s purchase of it.
Up until now, there has been no clear answer. This has given the city a bad reputation, council member said.
The next step is to select an architect for the $1 million project. A committee made up of Haney, council member Ken Roberts, City Attorney Bob Suelter and City Engineer Robert Winiecke reviewed applications from 15 firms, narrowing the field down to five.
These architects will give their presentations to the committee an noon Thursday. All those in the running for the job understand the bid time and price constraints of undertaking.
When Mayor Mike Allison polled the council, it was unanimous that the city should take over the management of the center. Under the current arrangement, the city contracts with the owners of the adjoining Highland Hotel to operate.
Many on the council feel the center’s condition is an embarrassment to the community and cited complaints of uncleanliness. They also feel the poor upkeep has led to a loss of business.
“The city should operate it,” council member Randy Myers said. But, “this is not just a convention center. It’s a community center” and perhaps be a venue for concerts and other performances.
With only about 20 percent of the business at the center coming from conventions, it makes sense, he said, to target marketing within the community and surrounding area. The balance of the use comes from weddings, receptions, meetings and other smaller local gatherings.
In the last three years, the center has averaged 12 conventions annually, CVB Executive Director Cris Collier said. However, with the center being closed for six months and most organizations planning their events years in advance, Great Bend stands to lose some of this traffic for the next few years.
Uncertainty about the center’s operation have already caused some groups to cancel or move elsewhere.
None the less, Collier said the city could see 16 or more conventions at the center five years down the road. A decade ago, there were as many as 20 per year.
But, one of the strongest selling points for the center in the past has been the attached motel, which would now be under separate management. “Is that going to hurt us?” council member Dale Westoff asked.
“It depends on how you market it,” Collier said. In some ways, it levels the playing field.
Collier said other motel operators in the community are in favor of the city’s operating the center and allowing other motels to plan events around it, perhaps offering a shuttle service. So, “you will probably feel it, but it won’t be devastating.”
Setting the date is crucial, Collier said. It allows for internal marketing and rebuilds lost confidence from those in the community. In addition, “so, by the time you open the doors, you have business.”
Discussed were the addition of new “air walls” that would allow the convention space to be divided into more room spaces, widening the north corridor for use as exhibitor space and the installation of state-of-the-art audio/visual technology. There were concerns about losing floor space and about parking.
The meeting put a cap on months of talks.
Since discussions on the center began, the council has eyed a host of management options. These ranged from the status quo of having the Highland owners manage the center to having the city handle everything from booking to food service.
Last August, Ambika Enterprises, a partnership between husband and wife Tejal and Amarish Patel of Concordia, and an uncle, Ishwar Patel of Vancouver, Canada, bought the hotel portion. The family, which already operates smaller hotels in Concordia and Beatrice, Neb., officially took over the hotel portion of the Highland Complex on Aug. 23, 2011.
Then, the council approved utilizing $500,000 donated by an anonymous group of local residents to purchase the convention center.
The city is also working with the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to bring at least a portion of the KDWPT headquarters to the center’s office facility. The lease is set to expire on the state agency’s Topeka location and it has been looking elsewhere.
The fate of this project should be known any time now.