City consultant suggests building a conference center at Kansas Crossing

Jonathan Riley
A map presented to the Pittsburg City Commission this week by the firm Hunden Strategic Partners shows the proposed location of a $24 million conference center adjacent to the Hampton Inn & Suites at Kansas Crossing Casino.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Pittsburg could benefit from building a $24 million, nearly 50,000 square foot conference center, a consulting firm hired by the city and Crawford County told the city commission this week.

“You’ll recall back in April we talked a little bit about a big gap in our hospitality industry that has really become a big driving force of our local economy, and that gap is the lack of an adjoined hotel-conference space here in our community,” Blake Benson, president of the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce, said at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

In the spring, however, the city still needed to gather more information to know for sure whether there would be enough demand to justify building a new conference center, so it partnered with the Crawford County Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) to contract with the firm Hunden Strategic Partners to further study the issue.

Rob Hunden of Hunden Strategic Partners said Tuesday that Pittsburg State University is “a great anchor” of “a good, strong market” in southeast Kansas that could warrant building a new conference center.

“Actually even though maybe a lot of people in the rest of the country don’t know about you, you’re a centrally located place that especially for logistics and for corporate regional players, whether they’re in state or out of state, you’re a place that people call up and say ‘Hey do you have a place that we can meet?’ Or have an event, or something like that,” Hunden said, “and they’re often turned away, and a lot of that is related to the university too, but they don’t have all the facilities they need to accommodate these things either, or the size of facilities.”

The conference and convention center industry, Hunden said, is not necessarily about making a profit directly from the operations of the convention center buildings themselves.

“It induces demand, it brings in demand, spending on hotels, restaurants, retail, other things like that, transportation,” he said. “And if those facilities can make a little bit of money that’s great, but typically communities, and even casinos and others, get into those to bring in traffic to the community and not necessarily to make a bunch of money.”

There is “a real gap” in what is available in terms of conference and convention space in Pittsburg, Hunden said.

“You really don’t have sort of the traditional larger ballroom that’s divisible with breakout meeting rooms and a full catering kitchen and that sort of thing,” he said, “and where you do have that, which is on campus, their top priority is to book it with university events, so it’s really not available most of the time for public and non-university uses.”

Hunden Strategic Partners looked at several potential locations for a local conference center, including a site near the cluster of hotels on the north side of Pittsburg near the border with Frontenac, a location near the La Quinta Inn & Suites and Meadowbrook Mall, and a site near Memorial Auditorium, before ultimately concluding that a location adjacent to Kansas Crossing Casino would be the most viable option.

Advantages to building a local conference center include affordable and available land and potential investment from Kansas Crossing, while challenges to overcome include competition from larger Kansas cities and branding issues, according to the Hunden study.

The size of facility that Hunden recommended for a space that could accommodate conferences and conventions that are larger than those Pittsburg can typically accommodate feasibly, but not too large of a facility for market demand, would be 48,820 square feet. The firm estimated it would cost $24.4 million to build and create 40 new full-time equivalent jobs.

Hunden also said that simply building a conference center would not guarantee its success.

“It’s got to be absolutely expertly managed and marketed by people who know what they’re doing, and you’ve got to keep the costs lean and mean, and you’ve got to have kick-butt catering,” he said.

Commissioner Patrick O’Bryan pointed out that the plan Hunden presented said that the project “will require ongoing subsidy from the public sector.”

Hunden said that part of the study was “probably something I’m going to want to tweak,” adding that the ongoing subsidy to support the conference center “can be from whomever the project sponsor or sponsors are, and in many cases it’s a nonprofit, in many cases it’s a casino, in many cases it’s a consortium, and also in many cases it’s the public sector.”

Benson said next steps in the process of looking into the possibility of building a conference center would include engaging further with the CVB and Kansas Crossing.