The Powell City Council gave its support to a planned hotel and publicly owned conference center on Monday. The council voted 5-1 to apply for a $2.6 million grant from the Wyoming Business Council to build the conference center.
Council members Scott Mangold, Jim Hillberry, Tim Sapp, Floyd Young and Lesli Spencer voted yes, while Eric Paul voted no. Mayor John Wetzel was absent.
The money from the grant would be used to build a 10,000 square foot conference center with a commercial kitchen. The center would have meeting space for 250 people and would be connected to a proposed 70-plus room hotel in the Gateway West business park on the western edge of Powell.
Christine Bekes, executive director of the Powell Economic Partnership, said Monday’s vote was a “gamechanger for Powell.”
“A win for the community is how I see it, and a win for the city,” Bekes said. “I think, to me, this process shows that the public is represented in the process. These are our elected officials and they asked great questions, which I always appreciate. Economic development is not something that every local government takes part in. For the City of Powell to take part in it when it can be big and when it can carry a little bit of risk — but when they weigh the benefits over the risk, and also when the risk has been mitigated — I think that makes the project very exciting, being able to put the community first.”
Billings developer Steve Wahrlich, who is one of the driving forces in bringing the hotel and conference center to Powell, is also pleased to see the project come one step closer to fruition. He said the next steps are finding investors for the hotel and continuing the community grant process for the conference center.
“The council having the foresight to look to the future, I think it’s great,” Wahrlich said. “It’s probably one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed being down here in Powell is [that] it’s progressive — they’re not going rocket-speed, but they’re not staying and saying ‘This is good enough.’ They’re willing to bet on their community and they want to improve their community. To me, that’s a huge plus.”
Mangold is pleased to see the new hotel and conference center move closer to becoming reality. He said the addition of a conference center to the hotel makes a major difference for the project.
“We’ve asked other hoteliers and we’ve asked a lot of people around the state, ‘How do we get a hotel here in Powell?’” Mangold said. “They look at what we have going for us — we’ve got the Park County Fair and we have ball tournaments — but it is that four months out of the year [the winter] that they really worry about.”
Councilman Floyd Young said that he was on the fence, but that the presentations by Bekes and Wahrlich helped win him over, as did fellow councilman Jim Hillberry.
“I think Jim helped win me over before the meeting started because he told me all the ‘pro’ side benefits,” Young said. “My worry [was that] we already have the Yellowstone Building, we have The Commons and we have the fairgrounds.”
Young said that when he thought about those facilities, he realized another conference center was needed for Powell.
Hillberry is excited about what a new hotel and conference center could mean for Powell’s future.
“It’s going to help Powell a long time into the future,” Hillberry said. “It’s going to bring more revenues to our city and the county in lodging taxes and sales taxes — and the city is not going to have an expense because all of the utility costs and everything are going to be paid by the operator.”
Paul, who cast the lone vote against applying for the grant, said that, while Powell needs a new hotel, he believes the grant will give the project an unfair advantage over existing businesses.
“We need a similar facility [like] what they’re offering, but I would have liked to have seen the public component be a last resort instead of a first resort,” Paul said. “I feel very strongly that we are giving them a sizable competitive advantage because I believe their hotel will book out first — and it probably would anyway, being a new hotel. ... But I just can’t get past the idea of putting public money to work to essentially benefit this project over any other existing or future projects that could come down the road.”