WICHITA — Today's Wichita City Council vote to set a public hearing on a controversial move to let The Lord's Diner lease or buy a building on 21st Street became its own public hearing this morning.
Person after person, mostly in opposition, agreed there's a need for more services to feed the hungry in Wichita. But many argued that The Lord's Diner's proposed satellite location on 21st Street near Grove could diminish city and grassroots efforts to revitalize the once heavily blighted area.
After about an hour of comments, the council voted 5-2 to set a Nov. 17 public hearing for more comments on the lease and/or sale of the former Boys & Girls Club building.
The Lord's Diner, which is operated through donations and volunteers, proposed leasing the building and bringing meals prepared at its downtown facility each day to feed the needy in that area. They would pay the city $15,000 a year for the building, which was recently appraised at $150,000. The Diner would have an option to buy the building anytime for $150,000 — minus any payments it has already made.
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The building has been vacant since 2007, when the Boys & Girls Club moved to a new facility on Opportunity Drive.
Peter Meitzner, president of the Diner's board, didn't directly address concerns about crime and public perception. But he said the organization has 5,500 volunteers who serve about 500 meals each day. He said the Diner's studies have shown a need in northeast Wichita near the proposed location, including thousands of children who live in poverty.
"Our mission is simple, to feed the hungry," he said. "And we try to do our best to do this in an environment of respect and dignity."
Still, many worry that having the hungry, including many homeless who may have addiction problems and criminal histories, in the neighborhood could deter new businesses from coming and reverse the improvements that have occurred on the corridor in the past decade or so.
Others said they would like to see the building become a job training center, an idea that has been discussed but appears dormant at the moment.
Kevin Myles, president of the Wichita chapter of the NAACP, said he wants the city to consider an alternative where the Diner delivers its prepared meals to churches throughout the central northeast neighborhood.
"We don't want to create one problem while in the process of solving another."
Council member Lavonta Williams, who represents the area, said she was upset to see the move to set a public hearing on the city agenda. She said it was put on the agenda without her knowledge and that she only found out about it Thursday while she was in Chattanooga, Tenn., on a Visioneering trip.
She proposed a public hearing be set for Nov. 17, instead of Nov. 3, as city staff proposed. And she indicated that she supports the Diner but questions the location when the city is trying to improve the area and has discussed a job training center at the building.
"You can give a person a fish and they'll eat for a day but if you teach them to fish they'll eat for a lifetime," she said.