Expanding the Expocentre
The Kansas Expocentre needs a facelift, and local business leaders hope Shawnee County residents agree that a bigger, better and more modern convention center will be worth the investment. The issue may be hitting the ballot soon. Here’s why proponents are arguing for changes...
The Expocentre is a staple of event business in Topeka. It hosts more than 700 events a year ranging from association conferences and trade shows to the rodeo, professional sporting events and superstar concerts.
It was built on the old Shawnee County Fairgrounds in 1987 after Shawnee County voters passed a $19.7 million dollar bond issue. That money constructed the 10,000 seat Landon Arena; a 44,500 square foot exhibition hall; Maner Conference Center; and a livestock arena.
Return on Investment
That investment has paid back big dollars to the community. More than 400,000 people attend events at the Expocentre each year. While the facility does not actually pay for itself, requiring about $1.5 million in county subsidies each year, the estimated yearly economic impact to the community is about $13 million. Many event attendees are out-of-towners who bring new dollars into the area when they attend events at the Expocentre.
Business leaders also see the Expocentre as an overall asset that makes Topeka an attractive place to live and work. Doug Kinsinger, the President and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and the GO Topeka Economic Partnership says the facility is a must have.
“We need a major convention and events facility that will attract new dollars for our community,” Kinsinger said.
For 25 years, the Expocentre has done a good job fulfilling its role in Topeka, but times have changed. Standards for events are different today than in 1987. H.R. Cook, the General Manager of the Expocentre, says the facility is starting to have a hard time keeping pace. Newer event centers and arenas have been built in Kansas that offer a wide appeal to event planners, agricultural shows and big-name concerts.
Some meeting planners have simply changed the way they do business. Many planners for association conferences, who generally like to have meetings in the Capital city, are now combining efforts with other groups in order to keep costs down.
This means more people at one conference, and more attendees than the Expocentre can handle.
Cook sites the Kansas Hospital Association as one group that can no longer use the Expocentre because of size constraints.
Size is not the only issue. Stars of major concerts and events simply want better amenities than currently offered backstage at Landon Arena. One of the most well attended events at the Expocentre, the televised WWE, has some high-tech electronic needs that Landon Arena simply does not provide. Promoters of that show told Cook they will not be able to come back to this facility unless improvements are made. The Topeka Roadrunners have to move out of their locker-room every time a big event comes to town.
The expectations of patrons have also changed in 25 years. Visitors want the wider seats and concourses available at newer arenas. They want better concessions and TV connectivity to events when they have to leave their seats. They want to be connected to the hotel space at meetings, and would prefer to not have to use the Landon Arena space for trade shows.
Cook says another challenge is just age. “We’re always fighting against what I call the shiny new penny,” he said. “Everybody picks up the shiny new penny.”
Several new facilities across the state have opened in the last 5 to 10 years or are expected to open soon. The newest competitor, the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane, is expected to be a big draw for current users of Expocentre space. Not only will it offer comparable facilities, but it will also have a casino, which is a hard draw to compete against.
The final problem faced by the Expocentre is deferred maintenance—about $8.4 million worth.
“This is not a lack of care or a neglect. It’s regular maintenance. It’s just wear and tear,” Cook said.
Repairs needed to simply keep the facility in good shape include things like repaving the parking lot, replacing the roof on the livestock facility, upgrading lighting and improving signage.
The Kansas Expocentre has developed a strategic long-range plan to address the issues at hand. It includes a total of $60.5 million in repairs, renovations and expansions.
Cook explains they have put a lot of thought into what changes would be best for Topeka.
“We want to make sure what we build will take us into the future because we are only going to have one shot at this,” Cook said.
Aside from the deferred maintenance, three major areas at the Expocentre have proposed changes: the Exhibition Hall/Meeting Space, Landon Arena and the Livestock facilities.
Exhibition Hall/Meeting Space
Changes to meeting spaces would include expanding the exhibition hall by 30,000 square feet. The extra space allows for trade shows to have enough space to move off of the floor of Landon Arena, freeing it up for other events. It would also provide a connecting piece for the entire complex. Maner Conference Center would be reconfigured to allow for the Sunflower Ballroom to be subdivided.
The major changes proposed for the Landon Arena include changes to the concourse to widen and enhance entry and exit areas. New seating for patrons will be more comfortable and keep up with what people expect in today’s market. The plan also adds club seating and meeting rooms. It will also address the locker room problems and update the behind-the-scenes features that may keep concerts and events from using the space.
The livestock facility expansion could potentially build a niche market for Topeka, drawing mid-size events. It is an area Kinsinger believes holds big potential for the Expocentre because attracting large horse competitions could draw participants from a multistate area.
“There’s quite a bit in the horse industry and we want to make sure we are capturing that,” Kinsinger said.
The expansion proposal includes adding two new indoor show arenas and exercise areas. It would also increase livestock capacity from around 250 stalls now to over 400 stalls.
The big question on plans for the Expocentre future is how to pay for it, and what to pay for. The Kansas Expocentre belongs to Shawnee County, which leaves the final decision with commissioners and voters.
Shawnee County Commission Chair Shelly Buhler explains the county feels they have a responsibility to take care of the Expocentre since it is a large county-asset, but how that will happen is still up in the air. She believes all of the interested parties in the project still have some talking to do before figuring out how much of the project will be put into place. That work falls largely to the Shawnee County Commissioners because they will have the final say on the wording of any ballot issues.
In Voter's Hands
Buhler points out that there are already several countywide elections scheduled in 2014. With a gubernatorial election and other offices expected to bring out voters, one of those elections might be a good time to bring up any ballot issues.
While all sources for funding are still on the table, the possible extension of a half-cent economic development sales tax set to expire in 2016 is a strong contender. The sales tax, which was first approved by voters in 2004, generates approximately $15 million a year, $5 million of that goes to GOnTopeka. The sales tax, administered via the Joint Economic Development Organization, has paid for economic development and a number of bridge and road projects throughout the county.
Other potential funding sources would be to pay for a portion out of the general fund, find private or corporate money, or look for bond options.
“I’m pretty sure a tax extension will (be put to a vote). What will be included in that extension is still undecided,” Buhler said. “That’s the biggest piece of work that we have in front of us in the next 12 months.”
Cook sees the updated Expocentre as an important economic link that connects many of the good things Topeka has built in the last few years.
“If you look at the Expocentre, we sit in the middle,” Cook said. “We can start connecting the dots of things that people have wanted in their visioning process.”
All of the players agree that Shawnee County taxpayers need to have input on what happens to the Expocentre.
“Anything this large is an asset of the county,” Cook said. “I believe the citizens should have a say. It has to have the support of the entire community.”
Mayor Larry Wolgast, who chairs JEDO, the committee that oversees the spending of the projects paid for by the half-cent sales tax, agrees. He says that people with thoughts about programs that should be funded either at the Expocentre or throughout the community with an extension of the half-cent sales tax should get in contact with their elected officials.
“We want to have the community involved and get people thinking about this,” Wolgast said.
A complete breakdown of the Kansas Expocentre Long-Range Strategic plan is available on the
Expocentre’s web site at www.ksexpo.com