Redevelopment of Memorial Hall on Landmarks agenda

The Hutchinson Landmarks Commission is scheduled to take up a suggestion on Thursday that it seek proposals for the redevelopment of the city’s historic Memorial Hall.

“It came up last week during (city) budget discussions,” said planning director Ryan Hvitlok. “It was brought up that the city spends $50,000 a year maintaining Memorial Hall, and if there had been any discussion about redeveloping it. So, we’re going to recommend Landmarks put together a request for proposals for redevelopment.”

“We’re looking at it as a win-win,” Hvitlok said. “If we get a great proposal that makes sense, maybe we can get it redeveloped. What I truly think will happen though, is we’ll not get any proposals or none that are fully put together or fully thought out. It’s a massive sized building and that fact it’s a historic building present a lot of challenges for redevelopment.”

City staff and the Landmarks Commission have already discussed seeking a grant next year from the Kansas Historical Society to develop a “reuse plan” for the building.

If no workable redevelopment proposals are received, Hvitlok said, that will actually strengthen the city’s grant application.

“All options are on the table” for redevelopment, he said, including someone purchasing the building or the city retaining ownership. “The city is not opposed to talking about ownership change, but at this point, we’d have to see what kind of proposals come in.”

Constructed in 1911 as Convention Hall, President William Howard Taft participated in the ceremonial laying of its cornerstone.

Some 15 years ago, there was a public vote on whether to upgrade the building or tear it down. The wording of the ballot, however, resulted in a split vote, with the public voting against tearing it down, but also advising the city council not to spend the amount of money officials thought it would require at the time to upgrade.

So, the city has spent several hundred thousand dollars since then in a piecemeal fashion, making improvements necessary to keep the building open, but not significantly changing the property.

“The Landmarks Commission wants to save it,” Hvitlok said. “Even the planning staff does. At this point, if we can find a good reuse why get rid of it? But I can understand the council’s concern when they trying to cut $4 million from budget spending $50,000 maintaining a shell of a building that doesn’t get used more than a handful of times a year. It’s a fair question to raise.”

Their desire, whether the building is redeveloped or repurposed, is to maintain its historic character, Hvitlok said.

“Like any historic building, when you get into it, it can be a Pandora’s Box, with other things that need to be redone and since there’s a historic sensitivity on that as well,” he said.

There have been estimates over the years what it would take to upgrade the building, but those numbers are dated, Hvitlok said, so he had no good estimate on what it might take to redevelop or repurpose.

The Landmarks Commission is being tasked with the request to seek proposals, the planning director said, since it would have to approve any changes to the building anyway.

“If someone wants to come in and redo a historic building, before they can get a permit they have to go to the Landmarks Commission,” he said. “They do have some authority vested through state law. We figured they’re the best body to have this discussion. They’re the experts in the city in terms of dealing with issues of history.”

While he’s not drafted the RFP, Hvitlok said it would likely give developers 30 or 60 days, or perhaps longer to develop plans.

“We’d like to have something back by mid-fall so we can decide what the next step is,” he said.