Wyoming Business Council evaluates proposed hotel and conference center

Project will face tough competition for state dollars

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Proponents of a proposed hotel and conference center got a chance to make their case to staff from the Wyoming Business Council on Tuesday afternoon.

Julie Kozlowski, director of the Community Development Division of the Wyoming Business Council, and other council staff met with Powell Economic Partnership Executive Director Christine Bekes, hotel developer Steve Wahrlich, Powell Mayor John Wetzel and others at Powell City Hall to learn more about the project. The proposal calls for a $2.6 million state grant to build the conference center portion of the facility — money that would be paid back to the City of Powell and State of Wyoming through lease payments over the next 20 years.

“It’s a good project,” Kozlowski said. “We can clearly see there’s a need. There’s been a lot of effort put into this, so we will absolutely give it due consideration and understanding [of] what it means to Powell.”

Bekes told the WBC staff that the hotel and conference center would be a win for the entire community, not just for investors.

“It’s a win also in terms of really securing a vibrancy for Powell and into the future, which matches the direction that we’ve been going,” Bekes said. “I think that the developer at the table, the expertise and the way in which he [Wahrlich] matches our community in terms of investing in areas where he is, in his business and in the community, truly matches Powell.”

Wetzel said Powell’s current lack of sufficient lodging and a conference center not only costs the city business, but missed opportunities for events as well. Therefore, he supports the hotel and conference center.

“I’m excited the project is moving forward,” Wetzel said.

Kozlowski said the private component of the proposal — the 72- to 78-room hotel would be entirely privately funded — sets it apart from other projects requesting state dollars.

“There is a public component, but the private component that comes alongside to make the project make sense is very strong,” Bekes said.

Part of the proposal would involve Wahrlich and Powell Clocktower LLC giving the city the 2 acres of land that would house the conference center; that now-private property on Powell’s western edge is valued at roughly $200,000.

When you consider the private investment “not only in providing most of the match requirement for a facility that the private investors won’t even own, but also the private dollars that are coming to the table and need to happen for the lodging facility,” that money nearly triples the public investment, Bekes said.

However, the project is far from a lock to receive state funding. Powell and other Wyoming communities have applied for more than $22 million in grant and loan funds from the Business Council, but there is just $8.28 million available — meaning not everyone is going to get the funds they are hoping to receive.

“It’s tough right now,” Kozlowski said. “We don’t have the funding that we used to, so that just means we really have to be diligent about the benefits that will be reaped from an investment of public funds.”

With competition for state grant dollars so fierce, Wahrlich described his feeling as “guarded” after Tuesday’s meeting.

“I think they like the merits of the public-private [partnership] from that standpoint, but I would come away guarded,” Wahrlich said. “It wasn’t like it was a slam dunk in any [sense]. They only have so much dollars that can go through the funnel, and they’ve got to look at the projects. The question really boils [down to], how do they value the private partnership of this — the investment from the private side?”

Wyoming Business Council staff will meet early in August to decide whether to recommend the hotel and conference center grant application to the full council, which will meet Sept. 5-6 in Cody. The application will also be considered by the State Loan and Investment Board when it meets on Oct. 4 in Cheyenne.

“I think the project is very strong,” Bekes said. “I think that the Wyoming Business Council staff sees the project’s strengths and the benefit to the community and the larger community of Powell, Park County and Wyoming.”

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