State approves funding for conference center

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Plans to build a new hotel and conference center on Powell’s western edge with a mixture of private and public funding should soon become a reality: On Thursday morning, The Wyoming State Loan and Investment Board (SLIB) approved a request for $2,623,724 in state funds to build the 10,000 square-foot conference and community center.

When completed, the facility will have a capacity of 200-250 people and be attached to a privately financed 70-80 room hotel in the Gateway West Business Park. Wyoming Business Council staff and the council itself had recommended that SLIB — made up of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials — approve the funding.

Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership and a leading proponent of the hotel and conference center, was excited to see the project get the public funding.

“This is a huge deal for Powell and I am so excited for this project to continue to move forward,” Bekes said. “There are the obvious benefits for the community like additional lodging and meeting space, but I think that we don’t even know all the extra economic impacts we are going to have until it is open.”

Powell Mayor John Wetzel shared in Bekes’ excitement.

“The need for a hotel and conference center has been so huge in the city of Powell that I couldn’t be more excited to be at this point moving forward and hopefully breaking ground in the spring,” Wetzel said.

Since the proposed hotel and conference center has a private component, it also required the approval of Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael before it could move forward, which Michael gave before Thursday’s hearing.

The hotel will be funded by Billings hotel developer Steve Wahrlich, while the government-funded conference center will be leased to Wahrlich’s Powell Clocktower LLC, with the eventual option for Clocktower to buy the conference center from the city.

“This project is a great example of a public-private partnership in which public dollars are leveraged to secure a significant private investment and support its overall success,” Bekes said. “One of the best parts of this partnership for me as someone who is accountable to my community members, local businesses and elected officials is that the public dollars are utilized by the project for a finite period of time and they all come back to either the City of Powell or the State of Wyoming.”

Bekes, Wahrlich and Wetzel all testified before SLIB Thursday morning in Cheyenne. Additionally, SLIB also received more than two dozen letters in support of the project from individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations.

“Powell has always worked to continue to grow and prosper,” Wetzel told SLIB, adding,
“... We have consistently identified a convention center facility and hotel project as one of our No. 1 priorities.”

“We see this project as a major cornerstone to build and move our economic development forward,” Wetzel continued. “We believe it will be heavily utilized by our college, school district, hospital, ag industry and the mineral industry in Powell — plus we’re super excited about how it would enhance the tourism experience in Wyoming.”

Wyoming Treasurer and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Gordon, a SLIB member, asked how the proposed hotel and conference center would affect other lodging and conference facilities in Powell.

“Our current hotel inventory is fairly weak,” Wetzel responded. “If you stay in Powell, there’s not a lot of it.”

Bekes added that there has been little opposition to the proposed hotel and conference center; the owner of Powell’s Americas Best Value Inn spoke out against the project during a Park County Commission meeting.

“... We did not come up against any sort of opposition that was strong,” Bekes said. “There is a need for additional lodging and this fills that gap of not only additional lodging, but also a higher-tier lodging, especially from a business perspective as we consider business travelers.”

Bekes added that Park County — which recently built a multi-purpose building at the Park County Fairgrounds in Powell — also supports the project.

“Our Park County Events facility ... is very excited [about] the opportunity to be able to attract more events, because we [will] have now additional lodging in town,” Bekes said. “That facility is set up more for trade shows. The technology is present, [but] certainly not at [this] level when you consider this project — we’re looking at $400,000 to $600,000 in technology going into this conference facility.”

Bekes said the new conference center will attract visitors in the offseason and “really makes this project flow from a private investor perspective.”

Gordon then asked if the project was “additive to Park County overall,” or if it would create competition between Powell and Cody.

Bekes responded that it was “absolutely additive.”

“... This project hits it out of the park for a project that makes the whole pie bigger — not just for Powell, but for Park County and honestly for the state of Wyoming,” Bekes replied. She added that Park County currently has six facilities with 70 or more rooms (all in Cody), with four being more than 10 years old and just one with an adjacent conference facility. The Clocktower project will also increase Powell’s lodging capacity by 50 percent.

“Additionally, Yellowstone Park has indicated to all the gateway communities — which Powell is a gateway community — that it needs to lean on its gateway communities more as its infrastructure struggles to support the number of visitors that come through the park,” Bekes said. “This project allows for people to come to Wyoming, not Montana, and to really just make the whole pie bigger for everybody.”

With his questions answered, Gordon moved that SLIB approve the project’s request for state funding.

“Sometimes we’ve found as a board it’s a little bit of a struggle putting a public facility in place that benefits a private institution — and yet I understand that’s a little bit part of what the process is here,” Gordon said. “But in this particular case ... it really doesn’t affect other private entities in the area. It seems additive to the whole process. I really recognize great work there.”

With the approval of public funding by SLIB, Bekes said the next step is to get all the agreements in place and then start the process to subdivide and transfer ownership of part of the land from the private interests to the City of Powell.

“The biggest lift now is on the private side, as hotelier Steve Wahrlich is able to put the package together for potential investors and work with the private lending institution,” Bekes said. “Until now, it was not possible to describe the project with certainty, but with the publicly owned conference facility getting the final approval from SLIB on Thursday, Steve can now move forward with the other critical pieces.”

Wahrlich told SLIB that he already has pre-qualification from a local lender.

The project is slated to break ground next spring and open its doors in the spring of 2020. Bekes said that Wahrlich would like to see the hotel operate under the Best Western banner since he currently operates two Best Western hotels, but that it is not set in stone.

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