City manager speaks about hurdles facing the idea of downtown conference center; developers say they're still committed to project
I think we’ve established that we know something about conference championships in this town. (I know to work it into the first 10 words of a conversation with a Kansas State fan.) But do we know anything about conference centers, like the one that is being proposed for downtown Lawrence? At the moment, I’ve learned enough about that idea to say it has some major hurdles to clear at City Hall.
On Friday, I shared with you some of my takeaways from a conversation I had with City Manager Tom Markus about the prospects for a downtown grocery store. That conversation also included some discussion about a conference center/hotel project proposed for the former Journal-World printing plant at Sixth and Massachusetts and Sixth and New Hampshire streets. I think some takeaways from that part of the conversation also are worth sharing, so here they are:
• Unlike the grocery store project, Markus left little doubt that he’s skeptical of a conference center in downtown Lawrence. He expressed concern that the city may be too late to the idea and that the regional market may soon have more of these conference centers than it can support.
“They can be like casinos,” he said. “I remember when casinos were being developed and everyone got on the bandwagon. When you are first in, that is a good thing. But sometimes when you are the last one in, it is not.”
He said while Lawrence likely would see a bump in business in the early going because the conference center would be “the shiny new bobble on the street,” he is concerned about its longer-term prospects.
“In the long run you have to figure out who is paying for it and who is owning it,” Markus said.
• The cost to public taxpayers is the driving concern on this project. If a conference center were to be developed with all private funds, that likely wouldn’t cause any heartburn. Although we didn’t get into a lot of detail in our conversation, the idea of some tax rebates to help the project also may not be a deal-killer. However, in other communities, cities have found themselves involved in the operation of conference centers. Sometimes they are the actual owner of the facility, while other times they serve as the financial backstop, or in other words, they cover any operating shortfall. It is clear those type of issues create a lot of concern for Markus.
“The numbers can be pretty discouraging on those type of deals,” Markus said.
Markus’ views are formed, in part, by watching some of his colleagues in the city-manager profession deal with these issues. He said he once watched a neighboring community run a conference center, and he told himself that if he ever landed in a situation where he was asked to consider such a project that he was going to be “pretty skeptical” about it.
I think that would probably sum up where he is today on the idea of a downtown conference center.
“That is running its own course,” he said of the project in general. “We don’t have as frequent meetings about that anymore. I think (the development group) is trying to refine what it is looking at, as are we.”
• While it will be up to the City Commission — not the city manager — to decide whether Lawrence should become involved with a conference center, commissioners do pay Markus for his advice. So, it would seem the conference center development group has its work cut out for it.
But Bill Fleming, who is an attorney for the development group — which is led by Lawrence businessmen Mike Treanor and Doug Compton — said the project is still very much an active one.
The biggest indication of that is the group has a contract to purchase the former Journal-World printing plant from the Simons family, the former owners of the newspaper. (To be clear, the Journal-World does not own any of the property, and the newspaper is not involved in the pending sale.) Fleming said the development group is expected to take over ownership of the property later this spring.
“We are very committed to that project,” Fleming said.
Fleming also said the development group is aware of some of the concerns Markus has expressed. He said the development group would be working to create a proposal that addresses many of those concerns.
“The issue that Mr. Markus has is how much risk and how much financial exposure does the city of Lawrence have on a project like this?” Fleming said. “There are a lot of examples where cities have said, ‘We’re going to be in the conference business.’ Some of those have probably worked out OK, but others, as you can imagine, have been disasters.
“We’re realistic to know that whatever project we come up with there will have to be very little to no risk to the city from an operational standpoint.”