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WaterWalk developers say market’s picking up



WaterWalk officials say they’re laying groundwork for more development downtown, as its most significant commercial project to date nears completion.

It’s a patience test for the development’s owner, Wichita entrepreneur Jack DeBoer.
“That’s just who I am,” DeBoer chuckled.

But after a year of commercial inaction fueled by economic fears, retail developers are beginning to climb back into the Wichita game, DeBoer said.

“At least we’re not getting the dial tone,” he said.

First, the details: Jim Korroch’s Fairfield Inn and Suites at Main and Dewey is on schedule to open this summer.

That company has leased space at WaterWalk Place for pre-opening administrative activities. Commercial space has been leased to Pulaski Bank Home Lending.

Two weeks ago, the 18th condo in the 46-unit WaterWalk Place was sold, and WaterWalk’s residential marketer, J.P. Weigand & Sons, reports stronger traffic. Another model condo is nearing completion for the Spring Parade of Homes.

“I’m actually feeling much better about the project,” DeBoer said. “I think the negativism of the economy, of downtown and of WaterWalk has changed significantly. I feel now that we’re on the threshold of continuing to make progress.”

One reason is the capital markets.

“It’s coming back,” DeBoer said, “so people can buy these condos with very favorable financing.
“And the development of the vacant ground, now instead of getting a dial tone at your bank, they’re listening, and that encourages people to step up what we need to build and continue developing.”

Patience notwithstanding, DeBoer is sticking firm to his plan to bring only the right retail to WaterWalk.

“I haven’t been too easy to build cowboy bars and dance halls, and that’s not going to change,” he said. “We’re going to be the top-end development downtown, and that’s coming back.”
The development has received a boost from the implementation of Project Downtown, the city’s 15-year master plan for downtown redevelopment, said Doug Rupe, who manages WaterWalk for DeBoer’s Consolidated Holdings.

“I think the commitment to the downtown master plan has proven to be a strong platform for opening discussions,” Rupe said. “Some of the recently announced retail activity is an encouraging sign that Wichita is on the national radar scope again.”

The master plan’s goal is to provide “predictability” to downtown investors, including those who might choose WaterWalk, said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
“They need to know what we’re striving to achieve, and they need to understand how their development fits into the overall fabric of downtown,” Fluhr said.

But development is a slow process in a down economy, Rupe said.

“Over the past 12 months, the operators wouldn’t even talk about future development,” he said.
“While they are still very cautious and careful, at least they are now listening. Now we just need to convince them from merely listening to actually taking action.”

It’s the same situation confronting the downtown redevelopment effort, Fluhr said.
“We’re not atypical to any city in the country,” he said. “With the lending environment a challenge for what developers would like to do, it certainly has posed a challenge to us.”
In the meantime, event programming continues at WaterWalk Commons, including concerts, charitable events and participation in RiverFest.

“As much as anything, WaterWalk has a whole new reputation, and we’ve invested some money and some time in that,” DeBoer said.

“I’m feeling good, about the perception of WaterWalk and about downtown.”

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