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Thursday, July 10, 2014

City launching downtown retail recruitment plan

By Bill Wilson
The Wichita Eagle

The drive to lure new retailers downtown will ramp up after the first of the year, city officials say.

The city’s professional recruiter has identified 15 potential entertainment and retail “chainlets” that may be interested in downtown Wichita. A glossy recruitment packet is ready to hit the street. And downtown officials are ready to start pitching an inventory of vacant commercial space in January.

“We’re excited about the launch,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “There are great prospects out there who are interested in us, and we’re ready to show them what we have to offer.”

Once the holidays pass, retail consultant Mike Berne of MJB Consulting in New York City and downtown staff will meet with those 15 prospects to sound them out about Wichita. They’ll be armed with a 14-page recruiting brochure called “Wichita: Center of Progress,” by Howerton and White.

Launching downtown’s first major retail recruiting effort is a turning point in the redevelopment of downtown Wichita, Mayor Carl Brewer said.

“We’re turning the corner, we’re seeing a lot of activity, and we’re demonstrating that we’re open for business,” the mayor said. “We’ve done a lot of the right things, and we still have more work to do. This should be a very positive year for us.”

The downtown prospects have a lot in common, Berne said.

“I’m not just choosing any retailer, but one that fits what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Retailers who’ve located in similar settings before, opened in downtowns, shown a willingness to expand among their immediate cities, grown to at least two markets. Businesses that are strong and growing, not weak and contracting.”

The goal of the prospect search is clear: niche businesses, not national brands. There’s no plan – or desire – to build an economic engine to siphon business from major suburban retail centers, like Bradley Fair, NewMarket Square or the Waterfront.

The prospects are regional and will come from Berne’s fall work on the road in Manhattan, Kansas City, Tulsa, Columbia, Mo., and Springfield, Mo.

“Not really a mass market concept that might be more interested in Rock Road or west Wichita,” Berne said. “It’s not Old Navy and Talbot’s. It’s not large national chains. It’s smaller regional chainlets that have been successful with two to eight locations across the region.”

There are three types of businesses being sought for downtown, Berne said.

“We are pursuing dining and nightlife concepts,” Berne said, “because that’s already our strength and there are some powerful business generators that have emerged downtown, like Intrust Bank Arena.

“But we are going after some soft goods, some shopping, too, because I feel pretty strongly that downtown Wichita has a lesser-known strength with the boutiques that have been successful down there. We can build on that as well.”

Slawson’s Jerry Jones, one of the NewMarket Square developers, endorses the downtown recruiting initiative.

“It does make great sense,” said Jones, who helped downtown developers lay out the recruiting program. “Bed, Bath and Beyond, Sports Authority, Best Buy, the kind of junior anchors we have at NewMarket, won’t locate downtown. …

“Here, they’re targeting regional retailers that have expansion potential who would do one store in a central location. I do see it as complementary.”

Downtown redevelopers backed off the recruiting drive in November and December, Berne said.

“Our targets are very unlike the large national chains,” he said. “They don’t have a huge infrastructure to deal with all the aspects of running a chain. These are smaller operations, and the holidays are a make-or-break time for them.”

The plan is to aggressively court all 15 prospects; the expectation is that many won’t be ready to expand. Landing three or four would be a bonanza, Berne said.

“Once we determine the ones who are seriously interested, we’ll put them in touch with the landlords and brokers with the list of available space that’s been identified,” he said. “We’re hopeful. We wouldn’t be putting forward the prospects we have unless we have a decent chance of a response.”

But downtown won’t fill up overnight, Berne cautioned.

“This is very much a marathon and not a sprint,” he said. “We’re going to make as good a pitch as we can, and given how the landlords and brokers have partnered with us, they’ll do everything they can.

“Come January, we’ll be firing on all cylinders.”

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com.

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