Jobs, urban lifestyle options needed to attract young professionals to downtown Wichita, developers say

03/31/2014 4:40 PM

04/01/2014 8:41 AM

Editor's note: An earlier version contained an incorrect name for Robert Eyster.

Wichita needs job creation and a well-defined urban lifestyle to keep the kinds of young professionals that downtown needs to foster residential, retail and office growth, three of downtown Wichita’s biggest developers said Monday.

Michael Ramsey, Gary Oborny and George Laham talked about the future of the city’s Project Downtown revitalization project at the weekly Rotary Club meeting.

So far, that work is progressing with $281.8 million in downtown investment since January 2010, said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. Of that figure, 88 percent, or $248 million, has come from private investors. Public investment in downtown infrastructure has totaled $33 million.

For Oborny, the developer of Wichita’s downtown Union Station train depot, the key is encouraging job creation, not just waiting for the return of jobs claimed by the recession.

“It’s more than just the jobs that aviation gave us for years,” he said. “It’s young entrepreneurs ... starting a business and creating jobs.

“We’re at a crossroads. We need to activate programs and get things going economically.”

Ramsey said his adult children showed him that downtown investment was necessary. His three children, who attended college in large urban markets like Chicago and Washington, D.C., became accustomed to an urban lifestyle.

So when it became time to return home, “they didn’t know where they would live,” he said.

“They’d shed their cars and they were concerned about living outside of town.”

So Ramsey and his partner Robert Eyster began investigating Wichita’s residential market. They contacted several corporate human resources departments that all told the same story, he said.

“They could recruit the workers and sell them on the job,” Ramsey said, “but then they’d get in the car to figure out where they’d live and have to go to the greenfields outside Wichita.

So the two developers started buying up downtown buildings with an eye toward converting them to residences, including their signature offering, the Lux. The old Kansas Gas & Electric building has 85 living units, including 31,000 feet of commercial space.

Laham, after 20 years of developing Bradley Fair on Wichita’s east side, also has a project that focuses on downtown living – 154 units, with 20,000 feet of commercial space. For his project to work, Laham said, downtown needs to draw more people.

“The main challenge is the development of critical mass,” he said. “If it weren’t for Old Town ... we would not be close to where we are today.

“It’s going to be awhile before we get the retail, the grocery store and that will drive more jobs.

“We have had a lot of singles and doubles downtown. We need more triples and home runs for this to happen.”

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