Now that restrictions have been lifted and COVID-19 cases have dwindled, tourism is back and destinations are working to gain back their pre-pandemic tourism dollars. Tourism is a big business and generates big dollars for communities.
Not just personal travel, but conventions and events can be a source a large source of tourism dollars for communities. Wyandotte County, KS attracts a lot of personal event travel dollars, with families coming to the area for shopping at the Legends and events like NASCAR, the casino, the Bonner Springs Amphitheater, and family vacations at Great Wolf Lodge.
CLOSED THE CONVENTION CENTER
However, where WyCo struggles is in attracting conventions and the closing in 2020 of the Jack Reardon Convention Center has created even more of a challenge for WyCo when it comes to attracting conventions.
In 2020, the then WyCo Commission voted to tear down the Reardon Center and approved a downtown development agreement that would replace the Reardon Center with a 10,000 sq. ft., multi-purpose meeting space. Moving forward on that plan, the UG closed the Reardon Center in mid-2021.
The Reardon Center, built in 1981, had a variety of meeting and event space and a capacity to seat up to 2,000. While small in comparison to Kansas City, MO’s large convention spaces, with a number of breakout rooms, it was great for attracting smaller regional conventions.
LIMITED BREAKOUT SPACE
“Without the Reardon Center, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage for attracting convention groups to Kansas City, KS, especially into the downtown area,” said Alan Carr, executive director of Visit KCK. “It was an important component to our tourism mix that is currently missing.”
Carr said the city has several nontraditional facilities that can accommodate larger gatherings, including Children’s Mercy Park, Great Wolf Lodge, and the downtown Memorial Hall, but none of them are set up for traditional conventions, with limited seating capacity as well as a limited ability for participants to break out into multiple, concurrent sessions. Memorial Hall can accommodate up to 3,000 people in arena setting, and the ballroom, which was recently redone, is great for banquets, and small expositions, but the facility lacks breakout rooms.
“So that’s where I think we struggle. We may be able to find a place that is big enough to hold a large luncheon or a large event, but if they need to have breakout rooms that are separate from that facility, that’s where we struggle,” said Carr.
Children’s Mercy Park has gotten into hosting and so has the Speedway for non-traditional events, not necessarily conventions needing breakout sessions. Great Wolf has banquet space for 200, but their suite-only hotel makes their rooms rather pricy for single-person events.
ADJACENT HOTEL SPACE
The other advantage of the Reardon Center was the adjacent Hilton Inn, which has recently undergone a renovation.
“The two had a symbiotic relationship and without the Reardon Center, they [the Hilton] are also not going to be able to attract some of the groups that they were able to in the past,” said Carr.
With just one downtown hotel and the adjacent convention center, Carr said, WyCo was able to attract “one-hotel conventions,” which are meetings that can be contained within a single hotel attached to a meeting facility.
Without the Reardon Center, according to Carr, the city doesn’t have the capacity to attract even a 300-person convention.
COMPETING WITH NEWER FACILITIES
The 40-year-old Reardon Center had a facelift in 2001 when the Hilton was built. Since then, the facility has grown outdated and struggled to compete with newer hotels with sizable meeting room capacity in Johnson County and Kansas City, MO
“When you’re looking at the standards of convention centers and convention facilities, the Reardon Center has fallen behind in what modern planners expect to be an attractive facility,” Carr said. “The Reardon was losing business to other places because it was not keeping up to date with what was being offered at other facilities.”
Willie Lanier, Jr., owner of Lanier United, LLC and the planned developer of the new multi-purpose meeting facility that was scheduled to replace the Reardon, agreed. “Today, a convention center that is decades old, that has not been updated, is not in demand.”
LaVert Murray, Chief Economic development adviser to UG Mayor Tyrone Garner, also agrees, the Reardon Center needs renovation, but neither he nor the mayor supports tearing it down.
Murray says the Reardon Center has a new roof and the UG has $2 million in the Reardon Center renovation account that could be used to make upgrades to the facility. That amount of money won’t do much more than give the center a facelift.
Instead of downsizing the Reardon, Murray would like to see the size of the center expanded by possibly adding additional floors on top of the existing building. He’d like to apply for a Federal grant to help fund the expansion.
It’s a completely different point of view than that of former UG Mayor David Alvey who supported the proposal the City has been working towards – tearing down the older and larger Reardon Center and replacing it with a smaller, newer center.
It’s a decision the current commissioners will certainly address sometime soon. Commissioner Andrew Davis says he supports putting the issue on the commission agenda and gathering input from the community on which path WyCo should take moving forward.