Fort Hays State University endorses Chestnut Street District

HAYS, KS -- Dr. Edward H. Hammond, president of Fort Hays State University, expressed his enthusiastic and unqualified support for the Chestnut Street District downtown redevelopment project during a news conference this morning at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

"The university has supported the downtown redevelopment plan from its inception, and I am publicly stating this morning that the university will continue to support this project in every way possible," the president said.

"What's good for Fort Hays State University is good for Hays, and what's good for Hays is good for Fort Hays State University," Hammond said. "There is no question that an improved downtown -- a healthy, vibrant downtown -- is good for the university, the community and the region. Historic Fort Hays, the Chrysler Home in Ellis, the Cathedral of the Plains in Victoria, the Hays Aquatic Park and other attractions will combine with a thriving downtown to create a sort of critical mass that makes every part of our community stronger."

The president said it was no accident that Tuesday morning's news conference was held at the Sternberg Museum. "This museum is part of the critical mass that can make our community more prosperous and a better place to live. It is a great example of how one component can both enhance and be enhanced by the other attractive components of our community," he said. "Furthermore, I would challenge anyone to find a more dramatic example of how a vacant, deteriorating building can be rescued and turned into a community asset and showplace."

The Sternberg Museum of Natural History, adjacent to Interstate 70 in northeast Hays, was built as a health club. It was vacant and had fallen into disrepair before it was acquired by the university and renovated to house the world-class museum that now draws well more than 100,000 visitors a year.

The Chestnut Street Project, the brainchild of developer Chuck Comeau, represents a similar vision. The non-profit Downtown Hays Development Corporation is striving to redevelop historic downtown Hays into an exciting retail and social center.

Comeau thanked the president for his public statement of support and talked about the project. "When we think about revitalization, the first thing that comes to mind is the physical and aesthetic transformation of the buildings," Comeau said.

"This involves topics like rental rates, parking, the business mix, marketing plans and other topics material to economic analysis and business viability," said Comeau. "All this is really important and needs to be discussed but the real key to success goes beyond the bare business plan and is the truly wonderful part of a successful revitalization project. It is the re-establishment of a sense of community and a sense of place."

"Integral to this sense of place is the evaluation and involvement of Hays' obvious cultural assets to create and strengthen Hays' position as a thriving destination," Comeau said. "Cultural assets such as Hays' rich history, historical sites and Volga German heritage, the historic Chestnut Street District's architectural significance complemented by the library and existing art galleries, the college with its progressive curriculums and a forward thinking medical center all provide a major draw to the Hays area."

Comeau added: "In the '80s, urban development focused on preserving and attracting manufacturing industries. Today commerce and tourism are the driving forces in a local economy. In this new economic climate, arts and culture make the important difference. Hays' assets of a rich historical background, university, museums and strong artist base can be utilized to benefit the community and spur new business development."

Dr. Mark Bannister, chair of FHSU's Department of Information Networking and Telecommunications, has been involved with the Chestnut Street Project from the beginning. He was a member of the Downtown Ad Hoc Committee, the predecessor of the DHDC, and he now serves on the DHDC board. "Downtown Hays and the surrounding area are critical to Fort Hays State as we recruit students, faculty and staff," he said. "We want parents -- and the prospective students -- to say, 'Wow, this is where we want our son or daughter to spend the next four or five years.' We also want our alumni to say, 'I wish I could move back to Hays to live.' "

"We have the opportunity to develop a retail mix in our downtown area that will serve students and others with shopping choices so they do not have to visit metropolitan areas or the Internet," Bannister said. "I am particularly excited about the involvement in recent months of Fort Hays State University students who are involved in the Leadership Studies program. These students, and their advisors Kurt and Christie Brungardt, have injected a great deal of energy and excitement into the effort."

Main Street in downtown Hays used to be known as Chestnut Street. The name was changed in 1929. In the past 40 years, the downtown began to take on a new character. I-70 diverted out-of-town traffic away and encouraged the relocation of businesses, which depended on that traffic. The neglected buildings and boarded-up storefronts eroded the community's perception of downtown, giving the impression that the area was in an irreversible downward spiral.

The developer, Liberty Group, intends to revitalize downtown Hays by creating a "Chestnut Street District," with renovations of existing historical and architectural features to create unique shopping, cultural and tourist experiences.

Sandy Jacobs of Sunflower Bank, who is a member of the board of directors of DHDC, served as master of ceremonies for the news conference.

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