As the downtown goes, so does the city. Hays is making certain its downtown continues to thrive.
Years ago, Hays was a part of the state’s Main Street program and hopes to join back up with the newly formed affiliate program the governor introduced last week.
El Dorado, Garden City and Sterling are other Kansas towns that are part of the Main Street program. Like Hays, Wellington and Larned have expressed interest in becoming affiliates.
By introducing more than 14 events each year, including the annual holiday Frostfest, the Downtown Hays Development Corporation, the nonprofit organization responsible for keeping downtown thriving, is helping to not only increase sales but boost enthusiasm.
With two stores under construction and only one empty storefront, Hays’ downtown is thriving. But making sure customers continue to frequent downtown’s small businesses is crucial for all the locations to remain.
"People are starting to recognize where the heart and soul in their community is," said Sara Bloom, executive director of the Downtown Hays Development Corporation. "It’s in their downtown, and they are starting to reinvest in their downtown."
There are more than 400 businesses in downtown, including offices. As far as storefronts, Hays boasts about 45. Many of these businesses partake in some of the year-round events, including Cottontails & Cupcakes, Bach’s Lunch Music Series, Brews on the Bricks and Farm to Fork Dinner.
"Downtown is one of the top attractions for our city," Bloom said. "It draws people worldwide to Hays."
Statewide Main Street initiative
Last week, Gov. Laura Kelly announced the creation of the Kansas Main Street Affiliate Community Program, an initiative designed to introduce more Kansas communities to the resources and technical assistance offered through Kansas Main Street. Kelly, who reinstituted the Main Street program last year, believes downtown projects throughout Kansas are important to both the state’s economy and well-being.
Because only 25 cities are part of the program, Kelly is offering affiliate status so more communities can participate. The cost to become an affiliate community is $400. The program allows four people to attend training events throughout the year.
"My administration brought back the Main Street program because it is a proven tool to help Kansas’ rural communities recruit and retain businesses, and restore and preserve the unique history of their downtown corridors," Kelly said in a news release. "This Affiliate Community Program will bring more resources for downtown development to rural Kansas communities."
Starting from scratch
"In 2001, (when DHDC started) our downtown was described as a blight," Bloom said. "Ninety-nine percent of the buildings were empty and falling apart."
To jump-start the downtown, the DHDC raised $750,000, bought several buildings and enticed businesses to join the movement, understanding a brewery would be an important anchor.
"Knowing when we purchase from a downtown business we are supporting a friend, neighbor and our community is important," Bloom said. "That money is staying here."
Dodge City, Hutchinson, Leavenworth, McPherson and Ottawa are Main Street communities. Last week, Newton, along with seven other communities, became affiliates.
"You can tell what a community is like by looking at their downtown," said Scott Sewell, director of the Kansas Main Street program. "It’s an important part of the community."
Some communities, such as Pittsburg, St. John and Salina, were part of the program but have not signed up again.
"You wouldn’t close down your Chamber of Commerce," Sewell said. "Your downtown is constantly changing and evolving. Main Street is helping organize that change."
Keeping downtown a community
The owners of Regeena’s Flowers were part of DHDC from the beginning.
"We’re blessed to have the mix of businesses and people we have," said Norman Keller, co-owner of Regeena’s Flowers & Events on Main Street in Hays. "It truly feels like family."
Philip Kuhn, the owner of The Press, a restaurant off Main Street in downtown Hays, said it is important to keep businesses downtown. According to Kuhn, he only competes against himself, not another business.
"The more popular downtown gets, the more popular we all get," Kuhn said. "Everybody is unique and we bring our own talents or personality to downtown."