WICHITA — Sadness, disappointment and a message of hope marked the City Council's abandonment this morning of a proposal to sell a vacant, city-owned building to The Lord's Diner to feed the hungry in central-northeast Wichita.
The sadness came from council member Sue Schlapp: "I think we lost our focus someplace along here," she said.
The plan evolved after The Lord's Diner conducted studies that showed central-northeast Wichita had a population that likely includes many who can't afford to feed their families every day. The nonprofit group, which feeds about 450 people a night at its downtown diner, began hunting for a second location months ago. It settled on the former Boys & Girls Club on the northeast corner of 21st Street and Grove.
But many around the location organized through neighborhood associations and said the move would conflict with investments the city and community have made to improve the 21st Street corridor. Much work remains — the area still has significant crime and blight.
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Many said they don't oppose the diner, they just want a less visible location. They said they felt lines of needy people who may have addictions could erode progress made on improving people's perception of the area. Instead, they want more businesses and job training facilities.
Faced with such opposition, the Lord's Diner announced Saturday that it was withdrawing its proposal.
Yet the hunger remains, council members, diner officials and those in opposition said.
"Today we turned our backs on those people," Schlapp said. "And I am deeply sad."
The disappointment came from council member Paul Gray.
"When it comes down to it, what did you really win?" he asked of some who had reportedly been celebrating the defeat of the diner proposal. "The kids that are hungry today will be hungry tomorrow."
Gray said the building, which is valued at $150,000 and needs significant interior electrical work, will likely continue to decline and add to the blight in the area.
The diner had offered to pay market value for the building, fix it up, feed the hungry and not ask for any government assistance. Gray said he'll have a hard time supporting any future proposals that ask for government subsidies. It's unclear what may happen to the building next.
Lavonta Williams, who represents the district including 21st Street and Grove, said she heard a retaliatory tone in Gray's voice, which Gray later said he didn't intend.
Williams said the diner's decision to pull its offer after community opposition was not a win-win for anyone.
"The winning part will be when we do take care of those who need these services," she said. "And I have no doubt that will be done."
She has pledged to meet with diner officials and others to find a solution.
The hope came from Mayor Carl Brewer who urged people in the community to keep meeting and to search for solutions to hunger with the same passion they had advocating for or opposing the diner.
Brewer, who grew up poor in that area of the city, said the diner proposal became one of the most complicated issues he has seen.
He said central northeast Wichita has to send a message by helping those in need without the diner's help.
"It's about helping people, helping the children and helping the community," he said.
The diner's withdrawal of its offer and the city's vote to end the matter comes just a day after the Department of Agriculture reported that hunger nationwide has hit a 14-year high.
The report said the number of Americans that live in households that lacked consistent access to enough food reached 49 million.