Wyoming Business Council gives full blessing to hotel and conference center

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The proposed hotel and publicly owned conference center in Powell took its biggest step yet toward becoming reality Thursday morning.

The Wyoming Business Council met in Cody and gave its recommendation to the City of Powell’s request for $2,623,724 in state funds to build a 10,000 square-foot conference and community center. The facility would 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 had recommended last month that the business council endorse the project.

“The decision by the Wyoming Business Council to fund the City of Powell project really is a testament to the quality project we brought forward and the excitement around a conference center and a hotel that the community has supported,” said Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership and a leading proponent of the hotel and conference center.

What made Thursday’s vote to approve even more notable is that the business council voted to go beyond its original quarterly funding allocation of $8.2 million to fund the hotel and conference center, demonstrating how much the business council liked the proposal.

The business council also recommended funding five other projects from around the state, including a $3 million grant and a $3 million loan to construct a facility for the expansion of Gunwerks firearms production in Cody. The business council also recommended funding projects in Buffalo, Sundance, Goshen County and the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area in Big Horn County.

Getting the recommendation of the business council and seeing the council increase the quarterly funding allocation “was the big step,” said Steve Wahrlich, the developer of the hotel and conference center.

Several Powell residents testified before the business council on Thursday, including Powell Mayor John Wetzel. He told the business council that while Powell has many strong points in its infrastructure, the lack of a hotel and conference center leaves a big hole in the city.

“Unfortunately, the No. 1 priority that we have coming up on the strategic plan has eluded us — a conference center and hotel,” Wetzel told the WBC. “We believe the project before you today is the perfect fit for Powell and the state of Wyoming as we continue together to diversify and grow our community and our economic bases.”

Bekes told the council that the hotel and conference center was “bigger than just Powell.”

“It makes the pie bigger,” Bekes said. “This project — the conference facility — is about bringing in business in the offseason. This is business that does not [currently] exist. These are visitors that aren’t yet coming to Wyoming.”

Northwest College President Stefani Hicswa also testified in favor of the hotel and conference center and said that the project could enable the college to add new programs related to hospitality and outdoor recreation.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the college to partner and start up new programs in the hospitality and outdoor rec arena,” Hicswa said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to expand.”

Hicswa was “thrilled” with the business council’s recommendation of the project.

“Christine Bekes and Steve Wahrlich did a lot of work in making this happen,” Hicswa said. “I’m happy to partner with them on this project.”

The hotel and conference center next will go before the State Land and Investment Board (SLIB) on Oct. 4 in Cheyenne. SLIB’s five members (the state’s five top elected officials) will decide whether to accept the business council’s recommendation and give the final approval for funding.

With one hurdle left to clear, Bekes is optimistic about the future of the hotel and conference center.

“Every time we get one more positive decision, it does make it easier, but by no means do I just assume,” Bekes said. “But it’s awesome — this project is a good project and would be very difficult to justify not supporting it with the funding. To be one step closer is a huge step for Powell. I can just almost smell the dirt of groundbreaking next spring.”

Wetzel is also excited to see the project move forward.

“[We] couldn’t be more excited for the hard work that Christine and Steve have put in,” Wetzel said. “It’s another step forward, so on to October.”

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