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Downtown takes shape


The Wichita Eagle

A summer after Wichita took delivery of its downtown master plan, things are moving from forecast to fruition — if more slowly and less visibly than anticipated.

Recent developments further suggest the plan from Boston-based consultant Goody Clancy could be the one that makes the difference, finally guiding Wichita to find the dream downtown that Kansas’ largest city needs to attract and satisfy newcomers, businesses and visitors.

On Friday downtown saw the opening of Cargill’s $15 million Innovation Center, which will be devoted to research, development and marketing company meat products. The Central Family YMCA is scheduled to open next year.

Last week Wichita learned about the plans to turn a building at Broadway and Douglas that’s been vacant for 12 years into a 117-room boutique hotel called the Ambassador Wichita. As the $30 million project serves the Project Downtown goals of enlivening the Douglas corridor, enhancing walkability and adding to hotel-room capacity, it will include a museum in worthy tribute to the civil rights history that was made on that site — where a 1958 sit-in at the Dockum Drug Store by the courageous members of the NAACP Youth Council prompted all Rexall drugstores statewide to open their lunch counters to African-Americans.

Meanwhile, the major $29 million overhaul of the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview — including downtown’s first new pedestrian sky bridge in many decades — is nearing completion. The Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott opened last month at WaterWalk, and Jack DeBoer recently rebranded and renovated the first Residence Inn into the Hotel at WaterWalk.

One crucial, if largely unseen, component of Project Downtown also has come together — a consortium of 12 banks that have committed $8 million in private funds to be loaned to qualifying downtown projects. Especially with traditional lending still so tight, this admirable collaboration becomes a valuable marketing and development tool downtown, as well as a signal that Wichita financial leaders endorse the core’s revitalization.

There also are multiple private ventures and renovations going on along Douglas and elsewhere downtown, further confirming that the plan is drawing business owners’ eyes and imaginations to the core.

That things are happening despite the worst economy in eight decades is a credit to Mayor Carl Brewer and the current and former City Councils, and to the cooperative private efforts led by the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. Sedgwick County’s role has been significant, too — as big as its 1½-year-old Intrust Bank Arena and as small as its purchase and recent razing of the old Coleman factory.

It’s hard not to be impatient for still more. For longtime Wichitans, it’s harder not to fret that promising ventures will fizzle out for lack of financing, business acumen or political will.

And taxpayers still have to wonder how much this is going to end up costing them, despite the plan’s expectation of $500 million in private investment and development supported by $100 million in public incentives and spending. The Ambassador Wichita could be a particular challenge politically, because its plans call for a city-financed parking garage and public park, a community improvement district designation and its higher sales-tax rate, and the use of federal and state historic tax credits.

But it’s great to start seeing the outlines of the downtown Wichita we’ve hoped and waited for so long.


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