By BECKY KISER
From the perspective of Doug Williams, executive director of Grow Hays, the biggest project for the non-profit economic development group in 2022 was the microfactory.
It’s a 30,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility to be built near Ninth and Commerce Parkway that will utilize an incubator for business startups and expansions of small manufacturers.
Once completed, the microfactory will be an incubator for four to six industrial startups at a time, allowing manufacturers to begin operations at a much lower cost than if they were to set up in their own location.
Williams reported to Hays city commissioners last week the project was been in the planning stage for more than two years. Thanks to gifts, grants and the work of a diverse group of individuals in Hays and beyond, ground was broken in October for the microfactory.
The city of Hays issued industrial revenue bonds for the project, “allowing us to avoid the (city) sales tax on the construction materials as well as a 10-year tax abatement, both of which are huge, allowing us to pass that on to the tenants who can be in there for less rent, grow their business, then grow out of it so we can bring the next one in,” Williams explained.
Construction costs have risen dramatically recently, increasing costs for the work from $3.8 million to about $4.3 million, “so we’re still out looking for money. … It’s the environment we live in.”
Williams touched on other highlights of 2022 during his annual report to the city commission.
As part of its partnership with Network Kansas, Grow Hays made six loans totaling just less than $200,000 to new small businesses last year.
“Because of a program that Network Kansas has with the Patterson Foundation, not only did those businesses get their loans, but they got a portion of that loan granted back to them.”
‘Imagine Ellis County’ is marketing the area to pull in new residents with a targeted focus on people who may want to leave the hectic living conditions in the Denver and Rocky Mountains front range area.
Business activity in Hays last year was robust, according to Williams, with 17 new businesses or acquisitions opening in the community.
The trend continues into the new year with five more in the process that will open in the next 60-90 days.
Williams said there are retail developers actively looking at the community, including a couple of big-box retailers.
“That’s always a challenge to get those people to do something. And it’s even more challenging now based on cost of construction and what some of these large retailers are willing to pay for rent.”
One developer is looking at a STAR bond for Hays.
State Sales Tax and Revenue Bonds are a financing tool that allows Kansas municipalities to issue bonds to finance the development of major commercial, entertainment and tourism projects. The bonds are paid off through the sales tax revenue generated by the development.
When it comes to the hierarchy of needs for rural areas, Williams contends that housing is the number one need, followed closely by education opportunities.
Housing last year in Hays is a great story to tell, Williams said to the commission.
Infrastructure for the Heart of America Tallgrass Addition Phase 1, northwest of 22nd and Wheatland in Hays, was completed in late 2021.
All 36 lots are sold, with 19 homes occupied. Seventeen houses are under construction; five of those will be completed in the next 30-60 days.
Williams considers Tallgrass a “team effort.”
“You all, (the city) in 2020, passed an RHID. (Rural Housing Incentive Districts provide reimbursements to developers in building housing in rural communities.) Heart of America (a local non-profit developer) was willing to invest a million and half dollars in infrastructure, without knowing when or if they would get their money back.”
Tallgrass Addition Phase 2 is 18 lots and almost done. The two builders that have been the most active in Phase 1 have each purchased nine lots in Phase 2 and plan to continue building houses as fast as they can, according to Williams.
“Certainly, this spring we should see some construction in that phase.”
Commissioner Sandy Jacobs praised Williams and others for their work.
“This is huge when you think this has happened in this community basically the past 15 months.
“Your foresight, the foresight of Heart of America Corporation, all the work the city has done, everybody should be patting themselves on the back,” Jacobs said. “We didn’t have anything like this for a long time.”
“This is exactly what we wanted,” added Shaun Musil, commissioner. “We all wanted people moving to Hays, other houses opening up (for sale as current residents move to Tallgrass.) Kudos to all involved.”
The housing project is expected to expand this spring for development across the street to the north on Wheatland Drive.
Williams shared the story of an email he received about three years ago from a Topeka resident who wanted to move back to Hays where their kids live, but couldn’t find any housing.
“They moved into their house two months ago in Tallgrass,” Williams said with a smile. “I think that tells the story of what the development has been and what it can be to others.”
Still, according to Williams, it’s not enough.
He shared statistics from the city’s planning and development division showing 55 total living units, single and multi-family, were built in Hays last year.
To support the 1% annual population growth city leaders would like to see in Hays, 85 to 90 new units are required to be built each year.
At that point in his presentation, Williams publicly announced plans for The Grove, a retiree-friendly 100-unit housing complex with a community center to be built north of HaysMed on Canterbury Drive.
Although Musil expressed some skepticism about completion of the proposed 100-plus housing units, he supports the community center concept.
The other commissioners, with Alaina Cunningham participating by phone, were enthusiastic about the plan.
“Disruption is always a time for innovation,” said Commissioner Reese Barrick, “and when you want to put money towards things and try to advance forward during those hardships, even though it doesn’t seem like the appropriate time, it is the appropriate time because that puts you ahead of the game. … It’s one of the things I appreciate about the people of Hays… We’re going ahead aggressively.”