In a recent speech to the Downtown Rotary Club, Mayor Mark Funkhouser more or less threw cold water on developing plans to build a 1,000-room Downtown hotel intended to revive Kansas City’s flagging status as a convention destination city.
Funkhouser said that perhaps Kansas City should not attempt to compete with “established destinations with established reputations” because they will be “hard to beat.”
“Would we be better off,” Funkhouser asked, “being the ‘best’ mid-sized convention destination. Would we be better off specializing in another area…?”
Seeking another point of view, KCTribune contacted Bill George, CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Group, including Yellow Cab, and former chairman of the Convention and Visiitors Bureau of Greater Kansas City. Funkhouser mentioned George and Councilwoman Cindy Circo in his anti-hotel diatribe.
Bill George agreed to respond to the mayor’s negative comments, stating why he and many other civic leaders feel the proposed hotel is urgently needed. That response follows:
Kansas City long ago lost its dominant status as a major convention destination in America. In the 1940s and 50s we were ranked with New York, Chicago, San Francisco as favored US destinations. We were well ahead of the likes of Atlanta, San Antonio, Houston, and Orlando. All those cities have since outpaced us. Today we are struggling to stay ahead of Louisville, Kentucky, Columbus, Ohio and, some say, Omaha, Nebraska. Can that premium status be retrieved? Should it be?
In 1900, just 90 days before Kansas City was set to host the Democratic National Convention, Kansas City’s first convention hall—just one year old at the time—was destroyed by fire. Even as the building smoldered, people in the crowd began collecting donations to rebuild, and after round-the-clock construction, a new convention hall welcomed delegates for the convention just 90 days later. Media dubbed this monumental achievement the Kansas City Spirit. Kansas City was established as a national convention destination, helped by its Midwest location and convenient rail and road access.
This can-do attitude continued for decades, eventually captured in Norman Rockwell’s painting “Kansas City Spirit” in the 1950s after a devastating flood. Kansas City attracted the top conventions in the country through the 1960s. Major investments in our airport, convention facilities and other attractions continued to bolster that reputation. But in the ensuing decades our downtown declined, and we seem to have lost this Kansas City Spirit.
As downtown declined, conventions fled. A shortcoming voiced by convention planners and convention delegates was lack of "things to do" in the heart of downtown. That has largely been remedied with significant public-private investment in the Power & Light District. Additional investment has been made in the much-needed renovation and expansion of the Convention Center. The missing piece is on the hotel front.
Downtown Kansas City, in its 1920s heyday, boasted more than 6,000 rooms in the downtown area. Today less than 2,000 rooms remain in our center core. Other intermediate-sized cities such as San Antonio claim more than 8,000 rooms or Indianapolis 6,500 rooms. Doing nothing means losing more ground to the mid-sized cities we compete with today, who are actively investing in their downtown convention districts.
This lack of hotel room availability poses a challenge for planners trying to pull together a sufficient number of rooms. A meeting planner looking for 2,000 rooms in Kansas City would need to work with seven hotels. That translates to seven site visits, seven relationships, seven negotiations, seven contracts and seven entities to keep track of doing the convention. By comparison the same number of rooms could be pulled together in two hotels in Denver and one hotel in Nashville.
If we wish to remain a viable option for our bread and butter--small to midsize conventions--we must step up and finish our plan. We need to recapture that Kansas City Spirit.