By Blake Spurney
HESSTON—Brad Heppner, chief executive officer and chairman of the board of directors for The Beneficient Company, unveiled his vision for Hesston during a called meeting Wednesday morning of Hesston City Council.
A schematic he showed council members depicted a 40,000-square foot building for city hall, police and fire services on one end of a downtown square and a non-denominational chapel anchoring the other end.
Hesston Village Park, the name Heppner gave to the vision, would include a plot of green space that is 20 percent larger than Heritage Park. He said the complex would include a 12,500-square-foot grocery store and possibly an upscale hotel modeled after the Rapp House. He said the city would need to get rid of portions of Old Highway 81 to create more density and a feeling of community.
Heppner also has plans for an area north of downtown around the railroad tracks. His concept called for an indoor flea market, an auditorium, an indoor basketball court, a museum and a railroad depot. He said his wife came up with the idea of a museum, which he said could have a new traveling exhibit every six weeks. He said there were so many ways to pull “fingers” into downtown, with each road serving as a finger.
Heppner said he had no intent to build a Taj Mahal. Rather, the intent is to create a place where youths would want to live and grow.
“COVID taught us you don’t need to go to Wall Street to work, as long as you have good broadband,” he said.
The grand plan to finance such a long-term project would be through the Technology Enabled Fiduciary Financial Institutions Act, which went into effect last year. Heppner said Kansas was the first state in the nation to have such a law. The legislation allows wealthy investors to create a tax-exempt trust. Of the total value of an investment, 20 percent must be contributed to the Kansas Department of Commerce. He said the rest could go to a foundation, like Beneficent Heartland Foundation, which will benefit Hesston. He said his group helped amend the law to set up the arrangement.
Heppner said the state was forecasting that his company’s fund would bring in $8 million to $9 million generated every year, which means 80 percent would go to Hesston. He also said his company’s forecast was two to three times that amount. He said he didn’t want the community to think of this as a checkbook.
“This is gifts coming to town because of profits,” he said.
Heppner said he was looking for community leaders to help create the vision. He proposed that 13 members serve on the board of the foundation. Those would include Mayor David Kauffman, City Administrator Gary Emry, Superintendent Ben Proctor, the president of the Hesston Chamber of Commerce, family members of a business and industry, the president of Bluestem Communities, the president of Hesston College, a member of the Hesston Ministerial Alliance and three members from his company.
Heppner suggested for everyone to “step it up a little bit.” Instead of a budget of $7.5 million, he said he was asking for a budget of $24 million. He suggested for the city to request $12 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to help fund the new city hall complex. He said an additional $8 million could be funded through the Beneficent Heartland Foundation with Hesston coming up with the remaining $4 million. He said if $4 million was too much for Hesston, then they should talk about it. Meanwhile, he noted that they had a deadline since the school district was working on a bond issue and a new school. He said he credited a lot of his success to being a graduate of Hesston High. He said his company had been footing the bill for the past week for the architecture firm the school picked.
Emry said Feb. 28 was the deadline for getting a grant proposal to the state for ARPA funds. He also said the city complex might be scaled down in size. He said part of the grant application was engineering fees, and he asked council to approve spending $25,000 on the fees. He said Heppner talked about helping with the expense.
“We need to do what’s necessary to win the grant,” Heppner said.
Council approved spending $25,000 on engineering fees and applying for the grant through the state. Emry said the city would know by the end of March if Hesston would receive the grant.
Heppner said his company hired a lobbyist to be the voice in the hallways while the state is going through the decision process. He said he learned that one had to be in the halls to get what he wanted.
“We have a couple of people in the halls for the next two months, and I’ll be coming in and out,” he said. “We need a whole program on how to encourage a favorable view with our grant.”
With Hesston as the designated beneficiary of TEFFI funds, Councilman Larry Fuqua asked how Hesston could stop the legislature from taking away all the money that it is projected to receive.
Heppner acknowledged that the law could be changed. He said the current law already was locked up through July 6, 2023, and that the law only could get stronger through upcoming elections. He said the state made a big commitment to TEFFI and that Lt. Gov. David Toland was in full support.
Emry said in a recent conversation with Heppner the two talked about the city’s match then the level of the project, which engineers estimated to be $7 million to $10 million. Emry said the estimates had gone even higher. He also said there was some discussion of “skin in the game,” and if that was the expectation for the city, he would like council members to know going forward. Emry added that he was sure the state would say that Hesston needed a resolution promising to meet its matching share every year so that the state was not left holding the bag.
Heppner said a 40,000-square foot city complex was a large format. He also said his group looked at other communities of similar size and found a couple of good examples. He cited Georgetown, Texas, which is a suburb of Austin, and University Park, which is surrounded by Dallas on three sides.
“My view, this has got to be an anchor for a long-term vision and how to get downtown back to being a big part of the community,” he said.
Hepner later explained that he was talking 10 or more years in the future.