WaterWalk's new management is shifting focus from its predecessors, retaining a major Wichita commercial broker to attract office and retail tenants in a move to draw traffic to the struggling 7-year-old development.
Owner Jack DeBoer will target office and retail customers first with his move to retain NAI John T. Arnold Associates, marking a shift from the original emphasis on creating an entertainment district filled with bars and restaurants.
DeBoer will use the commercial broker to generate the business traffic needed to support entertainment development down the line, Doug Rupe, a spokesman for DeBoer's Consolidated Holdings, said Thursday.
"We're very excited for the opportunity to market WaterWalk," said Marlin Penner, president and managing broker at NAI John T. Arnold. "Jack makes deals, and that's what this project needs."
DeBoer wants to emphasize market-driven office and business development — in a downtown historically short of Class A office space.
He also plans to hire a separate residential broker to fill the upscale condos in WaterWalk Place, Penner said, generating enough residential and office traffic to support retail business on the riverfront.
It's all about momentum, said Rupe, the DeBoer spokesman.
"We're going to approach this methodically," Rupe said. "We recognize that the first thing we've got to do is complete the fountains and the water next to WaterWalk Place to attract the people interested in purchasing a condo.
"Then, we've got retail space in WaterWalk to interest retailers in and the momentum just grows from there."
Longtime Wichita developers Colby Sandlian and George Ablah said DeBoer's entrepreneurial genius gives WaterWalk a chance.
"The thing is this," Sandlian said. "Any time you let a project go for any length of time it loses its power. Making a decision to go a different direction is smart move."
Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who has been briefed along with City Manager Robert Layton on the changes, said Thursday that the city endorses DeBoer's priorities for the project.
Brewer said the city remains confident that its $41 million investment in WaterWalk infrastructure, much of it through a tax increment financing district, is protected.
TIF district revenue would be repaid from increased tax revenue generated as WaterWalk develops.
"We've always been confident that WaterWalk would fill up," Brewer said. "The problem has been the pace at which it has filled up."
The move also marks a distinct marketing shift for WaterWalk's commercial property, which formerly was sold out of the development's offices.
After negotiations with Bass Pro Shop failed, WaterWalk bogged down as a number of restaurant and entertainment leases were swept to the back burner by a slowing economy, beginning with Saddle Ranch Chop House and continuing through a comedy club and a daiquiri bar.
"The intention by Jack is to parcel the thing out, price the parcels and throw them open to builders, developers and brokers," Penner said.
Developers will have great flexibility for their buildings, Penner said, within some basic appearance covenants.
"The idea is to allow entrepreneurs to do their own thing," Penner said.
The move also targets local business developers, although WaterWalk will continue to court regional and national firms.
"This shift exhibits a willingness to work with local talent — including brokers, developers, builders, architects and lenders — which we expect will tap into longtime relationships that exist with retailers, office users and restaurants," Rupe said.
The city and WaterWalk developers have completed infrastructure improvements along the river bank, along with Gander Mountain, the Wichita Area Association of Realtors headquarters and WaterWalk Place on Main Street.
Construction of the water features and gardens on the west side of WaterWalk Place are nearing completion.