The Kansas State Fair Board voted Tuesday to proceed with a plan to convert dormitories on the second floor of the Encampment Building into corporate-sponsored meeting rooms, ending an 85-year tradition of housing youth exhibitors there.
The idea was spawned after SkillsUSA came looking for a place to host regional programs on the fairgrounds, and it promised to pay for remodeling the space through donations.
Tuesday’s vote was not without dissent, however, with several board members upset they were not notified about the plan before it was presented for approval, with sponsorships already being reserved.
There was also concern voiced it will send a negative message to 4-H youth, who were being afforded low-cost housing during the fair.
The Encampment Building was constructed in 1934 to house 4-H’ers. It was dedicated in 1935 by Gov. Alf Landon. At its height, the facility housed more than 800 youth a night who came to participate in the fair. It was also used by others in the off-season.
It was used to house National Guardsmen for staging in 1940 and by the Navy in 1942 while the Naval Air Base south of Yoder was built, according to stories in The News.
Use of the dormitories, with separate rooms for each gender, has fluctuated over the years. As many as 200 youth a night were staying there just over a decade ago.
During last year’s fair, however, Fair Board Chairman Harmon Bliss reported, it was used for just 348 bed-nights, or an average of about 35 youth per night, ranging from 57 people one night to just three on another.
Becky Warren, public service executive with SkillsUSA, presented the proposal to the board along with Nathan McClanahan, the Fair’s Facility Rentals Coordinator.
She approached fair officials, Warren said, after learning in December that the Atrium Hotel had closed, which is where an annual Skills competition had been scheduled.
"It shook my world," Warren said. "We had 13 competitions knocked out."
"We support career and technical programs at high school, middle school, and post-secondary levels," she explained. "There are 75 active chapters in Kansas with a membership of almost 4,000."
The organization’s mission is to improve the quality of America's skilled workforce, teaming students with technical and professional skills instructors and industry representatives.
"There are 6,000 students involved in national competition," Warren said. "Each state has its own conference."
Warren visited the fairgrounds and walked building to building with McClanahan, where they came up with the plan to convert the two dorms into eight meeting rooms. Under the proposal, each room would have a corporate sponsor who would decorate it. Sponsorships, at $12,500 each, would be for 10 years.
"There will be a theme for each conference room, with a logo on the outside and all the decorations inside are theirs. Depending on how they want to design it, they might have the history of the company on a plaque, so we understand they’re a Kansas company and the history of it."
"It’s a way to blossom and further relationships with SkillsUSA," she said. "Our vision is to further educational opportunities and I can’t think of a better way than having young professionals get first hands-on work experience with field contractors in their field of trade."
Part of the idea is also to lease out the meeting rooms to private companies or other school organizations during the year.
Warren said she’s just one of eight organizations recognized by the Kansas Department of Education that have clubs or chapters in schools, and she’s been talking with others about making the fairgrounds, which are centrally located in the U.S. as "a hub" for their activities.
An original estimate for the conversion was $100,000 and they already started securing donations. When preliminary bids came in, however, Warren said, the cost was closer to $300,000.
Each of the state’s seven SkillsUSA regions is now working on fundraising, she said, "making a competition out of it," and she hopes to have the money raised by the end of the year.
Board members asked if there were any drawings, to see what was being proposed.
"We’re not there yet," Warren said. "Most of the physical walls will remain the same. We’ll just renovate into conference rooms instead of bunk rooms, and the showers will become a snack room."
"In essence, you’re eliminating anyone staying on the fairgrounds?" asked board member Kathy Brazle.
They won’t start the work until all the funds are raised and could complete one side at a time, Bliss said, allowing the remaining dorm space to be used one or two more years, "so they can make alternative decisions" on where to stay.
The first part of the project, McClanahan said, will be heating and air and rewiring. Furnishing the rooms, "including computers and electronics to make them modern conference rooms" is included in the $300,000.
Referencing the long history between the fair and 4-H, Wade Weber, K-State Extension 4-H Youth Development director and state program leader, said he found it "a little bit disturbing that you’re talking like these plans are going forward without a discussion."
"There are significant stakeholders in the 4-H world that have had, unfortunately, a rocky relationship with this board when it comes to Encampment," Weber said. "I know SkillsUSA is an organization we can champion with you, but I do ask for an opportunity to talk it through. I can tell you straight up in the Extension world this will not be well received. It will be seen as a slap in the face by some stakeholders."
Fair Board General Manager Robin Jennison, however, asked the board to give permission to move forward with the project.
"It's a heck of a facility that gets used 10 days a year," he said. "In my mind that’s ridiculous. This is an opportunity to form a partnership with a well known, very reputable group to change that. Not only to change that but potentially the rest of the fairgrounds."
Since the dorm beds are only $11 per night, they could raise more in two days with a conference in the building than the $3,800 raised at last year’s fair, Brazle noted.
"Becky and Nathan brought this up," Jennison said. "COVID changed a lot of things and we were not able to bring this up as timely as we wanted."
He acknowledged, however, that discussions had been going on for months and he asked Warren in early May to present to the board at the June meeting "to move forward."
It was suggested by a couple of board members that maybe a pair of rooms could be left as dorms, but McClanahan said that would just create conflict between users.
"If we’re going to do it, we need to do it the right way, all converted or none," he said.
Board member Sarah Green asked whether any market studies had been done to see if there was the demand for conference space that was being touted or whether other ideas for space had been explored.
Jennison said no studies were done.
"This has just taken a lot of us by surprise," said board member Gregg Hadley, associate director of extension at KSU. "We didn’t know any background on this. This is kind of something maybe the board needed some paperwork on beforehand."
"As a parent, the way things are moving forward, I don’t think people will send their kids to stay with a group of people they don’t know," said board member Paula Landoll-Smith. "I think the need is going to go away. I make the motion to go forward."
The motion passed on a vote of 9-to-4.