A lot has changed in the 3 1/2 years since Jeff Fluhr arrived in Wichita to become president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
“There were a number of discussions under way that we needed to develop a blueprint,” he said of mapping a course for downtown development.
Those discussions turned into Project Downtown, which Fluhr said created “a clear, concise path.”
What’s more, he said, is those decisions are turning into economic development.
“We’re seeing a lot of movement in downtown,” Fluhr said. “It’s a vibrant center.”
He said people outside of Wichita can see that it’s working.
“We’re getting a number of calls from cities across the country asking how we are getting the economic development that we are,” he said.
Fluhr says last year, $60 million worth of downtown projects opened, such as the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview, the Fairfield Inn and Suites at WaterWalk and the expanded Cargill facilities.
He said another $94 million in projects were begun and will be completed this year, including the new downtown YMCA, Ambassador Hotel and the St. Mary Cathedral renovation. There’s also a lot of work happening along St. Francis, such as a new park.
Another $20 million worth of projects is starting this year, including the renovation of Victoria Park Apartments.
“We’re seeing tremendous opportunities now,” Fluhr said.
Helping progress is a consortium of 12 banks that have committed $8 million in private funds to be loaned to qualifying downtown projects.
“It provides an option that’s not always available without a consortium,” said Gary Schmitt, vice chair of Wichita Downtown Development. He’s also division director for commercial real estate lending at Intrust Bank.
Schmitt said the consortium can help finance some deals that might not meet the criteria for lending at certain banks.
“It is also very advantageous about informing the banking community about what is happening downtown,” he said.
Fluhr said there’s a clear understanding of what everyone – the city, county, chamber and private sector – is trying to achieve.
“That, I think, will also translate to a very vibrant region.”
He said it also helps that there are clear policies for public investment.
A consultant from Project Downtown is helping to identify regional retail prospects and soon will begin contacting Wichita commercial brokers about those opportunities. Retail is possible because of the success downtown is seeing in the residential realm, Fluhr said.
“We’re seeing great progress there.”
For instance, developers Robert Eyster and Michael Ramsey quickly filled all nine residential leases at their new Zelman Lofts at St. Francis and Douglas.
“It’s a great indicator that there’s a high demand for downtown residential,” Fluhr said.
Among their other projects, Eyster and Ramsey are remodeling the former Protection One building at First and Market and creating the Lux for residential and commercial use.
Fluhr said there are more projects he can’t announce yet that will create further residential options.
The more people who locate downtown, Fluhr said, the stronger the prospects will be to recruit other development.
Fluhr said there’s been “tremendous progress” in the commercial and hospitality markets, particularly with the Ambassador hotel project – a 117-room boutique hotel that will be built in the vacant building on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway that once housed Dockum Drugs.
“It has served as a catalyst,” Fluhr said.
The plans include a parking garage and small park financed by the city.
The hotel joins the Kansas Health Foundation expansion, the planned renovation of the nearby Henry’s building, and city garage and park improvements in downtown’s first full block project.
“That block alone, when you add those projects up, you’re approaching $50 million … worth of private and public investment in the core of our downtown,” Fluhr said.
He said there’s a lot of foresight with projects these days.
“When we do things like garages now, we build additional capacity,” Fluhr said.
Schmitt said many people don’t have an understanding of how much downtown has changed in the last five years.
“People need to come and take a look,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t see it driving through downtown. You have to get out of your car and walk it and enjoy it.”
As much as downtown has already changed, Fluhr expects it to change even more dramatically in the next several years.
“The skyline of downtown is going to drastically change over the next five years,” he said.
“It really is, I think, a very dynamic time for our city.”