Century II, the iconic round downtown building with the blue roof, has a long history with its fans.
Jan Harrison, today a Wichita radio personality, landed her first job there.
“I was a concessionaire at Century II at the age of 14. Great memories of that job,” she said. “I learned to add orders in my head and count back change.”
Wichitan Sheri Mayes graduated from high school there before attending various events.
Wichita needs to stop tearing down its unique architecture, she said.
“Century II is 44 years old,” she said. “That’s a ‘baby’ compared to the old buildings in Europe.
“I’m not willing to tear down Century II just to build another structure that will be torn down in 50 years,” she said. “If you want to construct a bigger and better facility for the arts, that’s wonderful, but keep Century II.”
A convention consultant told city officials last week that Century II is outdated and that Wichita could generate up to $30 million more per year in economic activity with state-of-the art convention facilities. Conventions, Sports and Leisure International said the city could either raze Century II and replace it with a new convention center or build a new exhibition hall and keep Century II for the performing arts.
City officials have made no decisions about the issue.
But the responses of a small number of readers who offered their opinions to The Eagle through the Public Insight Network illustrate two issues backers of a new convention center would have to overcome.
They said drawing more conventions is not a high priority for them. Instead, they said, City Hall needs to worry about water supplies, sewer and water lines and streets before it spends money – or raises the sales tax – to build or renovate the city’s convention center.
And, most of them said, they don’t want to see Century II replaced.
“I think the building could use some updates, but the last thing I want to see happen is to have the building torn down,” Mayes said.
“Why do we waste so much money constructing and destroying our buildings? We need better planning and we need to look to the future before doing construction on any building of a civic nature.”
In contrast, Harrison is fine with a new downtown convention center. Just leave Century II in place, she said.
“I think an entirely new convention facility should be built downtown,” she said. “It (Century II) is iconic Wichita. We need to keep it to reinforce our unique identity.”
Only one respondent – a younger man who called the building the symbol of Wichita’s “mediocrity” – advocated tearing Century II down.
Instead, the majority leaned toward renovating the building, including Mayes, who said any attempt to tear it down would require removing and relocating the 33-ton Wichita Theatre Organ – in a city without another building large enough to house it.
Mayes said she’s a huge supporter of the organ, which was originally housed at the New York Paramount Theater in Times Square.
“I don’t believe the people of Wichita realize what a treasure they have in that organ,” Mayes said. “It is the largest theater organ ever produced by Wurlitzer. The fact that this organ is in Wichita is remarkable, and it needs to stay in Wichita if at all possible.”
Respondent Adam Knolla, an engineer, also favors updating the building.
“Expanded or modified to allow for higher ceilings, which it sounds like is its biggest hindrance,” he said, “but keep as much of the facade as possible.”
Now, how to pay for that updating? There’s significant opposition from respondents to higher taxes to upgrade Century II.
“I’m not sure,” Mayes said. “I’m tired of being taxed to death by this city. We have one of the highest tax rates in the Midwest. I definitely don’t want my property taxes to go up. I’d rather pay an extra penny in sales tax.”
The sales tax is Harrison’s preference as well.
“I think a sales tax increase with a definite expiration date, such as that established in the building of the new arena, would work well,” she said.
John Mohr, 68, of Wichita says Century II is fine as is – unless the city can strike oil underneath it to lower his taxes.
“It should only be replaced so that oil can be drilled on the site and thereby save the taxpayer money,” he said. “Look at the Oklahoma City Capitol. I have no problem seeing oil derricks, and neither do they. They are saving money.”
If the city opts not to search for oil, leave Century II alone, Mohr said.
“It is fine, and just because it is 40 years old does not make it a candidate for replacement,” he said. “No new taxes or fees of any kind.”