January 12, 2012

Partners envision big city life in downtown Wichita

Wichita will never be New York, but the Big Apple is Robert Eyster’s inspiration for redeveloping downtown.

Wichita will never be New York, but the Big Apple is Robert Eyster’s inspiration for redeveloping downtown.

The longtime Wichita orthopedic surgeon used to visit New York on weekends in the 1990s when his wife was in law school. Even though he lost sleep with action-packed itineraries in the big city, he regularly returned invigorated.

Eyster wants to bring that energy to Wichita.

“I am just really convinced that density of population rather than sprawl of population makes for a better society,” he said.

In the last 18 months, he has purchased seven buildings in downtown Wichita and is in various stages of redeveloping them for residential, retail and office use.

“It’s something that gives me great pleasure,” said the 64-year-old Eyster. “This is a passion of mine. It’s a new challenge.”

Eyster is supplying the vision and money, and his business partner and physician assistant, Michael Ramsey, is making it happen by finding downtown spaces and handling the day-to-day operations on each of the projects.

“I like building things,” said Ramsey, 50. “We’re just frustrated carpenters.”

It’s more like the two were special-ordered developers sent to fulfill the mission for downtown that Boston consultants Goody Clancy created for the city.

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said Eyster and Ramsey closely watched the creation of the downtown master plan.

“They began to see the opportunities,” Fluhr said. “Then they began to connect those opportunities with buildings. … They’ve done a tremendous job of assembling teams to make their vision become a reality.”

Eyster and Ramsey only reluctantly discuss their projects.

“I would much rather have this conversation in two and a half years,” Ramsey said of completing more work before talking about it.

Eyster said, “I want to complete whatever we start, and it’s a long process.”

The two seem to bring their careful approach with medicine to development as well.

“They make informed decisions,” said Ted Farha of Farha Construction, the contractor for all of Eyster’s projects. “All developers do, but for these guys to be so new in the business and to do it so well is eye-opening.”

‘Great bones’

Ramsey was standing on St. Francis during a scorching hot Taste of Wichita street festival in 2010 when he first eyed the Zelman building on the northeast corner of Douglas and St. Francis for potential redevelopment.

“We were looking for a second location for the Linkhaus,” Ramsey said of the restaurant near 37th and Rock Road, now closed, which Eyster started for his son, James, to run.

Ramsey liked the “beautiful” St. Francis and the “great bones” of the Zelman building, although not for the Linkhaus. He met Fluhr and other downtown promoters through looking at the building.

“That was when things really started clicking,” Ramsey said.

Today, the Zelman renovation is almost complete. Four of the nine lofts in the former clothing store are leased, and there’s restaurant and office or retail development yet to come.

Eyster also bought and is transforming Victoria Park Apartments, which has been low-income housing, at 612 E. Douglas.

He bought the former Protection One building on the northwest corner of First and Market and renamed it the Lux with plans to create luxury apartments and possibly condos along with commercial space on the first two floors.

Eyster also bought what’s been dubbed a trifecta of buildings – for which he and Ramsey haven’t yet announced plans – including the Board of Trade building at 120 S. Market, the former Merrill Lynch building at 100 S. Market and the Caldwell-Murdock Building at 111 E. Douglas along with the adjacent vacant property. The latter became known for a giant hole in the ground that Kelly Donham previously planned to develop.

Most recently, Eyster purchased the small Stewart’s Jewelry building at 415 E. Douglas.

“A lot of things came together pretty quickly, but it was months of research to get to that point,” Ramsey said of the purchases.

He said he spends hundreds of hours in research instead of putting a contract on a building and then doing due diligence.

“It’s just a whole process before we even think of buying a building,” Ramsey said. “I drive the real estate agents in this town crazy.”

‘We clicked’

It was through Ramsey’s persistence that he came to work for Eyster 26 years ago.

Eyster, an Oklahoma native, came to Wichita for his residency in orthopedic surgery.

Ramsey, a Washington, D.C., native, came to McPherson College, which his father also attended.

After finishing a particularly grueling physician assistant’s rotation, Ramsey heard of Eyster and decided he wanted to work for him.

“He doesn’t believe in education through intimidation,” Ramsey said.

Eyster told Ramsey he didn’t need a physician assistant, but Ramsey convinced him otherwise and came to regularly work 90-hour weeks for him.

“He’s just an exceptional individual,” Eyster said one recent morning at the Lux while discussing his developments.

An embarrassed Ramsey quickly exited the room to get coffee and avoid the praise.

“Michael has the best work ethic of any person I’ve ever met,” Eyster said.

Eyster said Ramsey suggested new surgical techniques, among other things, and that kind of dialogue with Ramsey has never let him down.

“He’s my best friend.”

Ramsey said they know what each other is thinking without having to speak it.

“We clicked.”

Ramsey had about 10 summers’ worth of construction experience working for a contractor in Maryland while in high school, college and physician assistant school. Eventually, he ran a crew and bid small jobs.

Ramsey still runs Eyster’s medical office and assists in surgery but now spends only about 20 hours a week at the practice. He meets Eyster after hours to discuss their developments. Eyster’s trust in Ramsey is at the heart of his investment strategy.

“That may be the key of investing,” Eyster said of trusting someone with his money. “You better know that person really well. It goes beyond knowing them as well as you do your family.

“How does that person hold up as regards to honesty, integrity and judgment?”

Caution is at the forefront of everything Eyster is doing downtown.

“Every move we make is with such trepidation,” Ramsey said. “We don’t develop off of speculatory vision.”

Ramsey said he’s seen just about every downtown property on the market along with some that aren’t.

“A lot of them were distressed buildings that really needed a lot of love and care, and they also were good buys.”

From there, Ramsey said, he’d “let the building tell us, along with the input from experts, what that building should be.”

“I didn’t come into this thinking I knew everything.”

He said he’s relied on people such as the late Maury Breidenthal, who was the architect on the Zelman building, and downtown experts such as Fluhr and Goody Clancy.

Farha said Ramsey knows how to get the best from others, whether that’s paying in an exceptionally timely manner or doing little extras such as bringing ice cream to a construction crew on a hot day or regularly buying them lunch.

“Number one, he likes to do that,” Farha said. “Number two, he knows that everybody’s going to appreciate that and go the extra mile for him, and I guarantee you every sub’s going to do that for him.”

Farha said Ramsey is exacting, too.

“We have standing meetings on projects that we flat don’t miss,” he said.

Farha has come to know Ramsey as a friend – a friend who won’t let him eat bagels in his impeccably clean car or who won’t drive until everyone’s seatbelt is on.

“If he’s going to cook something, it’s going to be crazy good,” Farha said. “He goes the extra mile in all that he does.

“I’m having a hell of a lot of fun working with him, and it’s fun to be in the middle of all this downtown resurgence.”

Building a team

Part of Ramsey’s crash course in real estate, he said, is that “I ask everybody about everybody.”

Farha is his exclusive contractor, and Leisa Lowry of J.P. Weigand & Sons is his real estate broker.

Ramsey said he tries to select an architect based on each project and has hired Wichita’s Shelden Architecture and Cathcart Architects and Kansas City-based El Dorado Inc.

He also regularly consults his nephew, Adam Wagoner, and Adam’s wife, Rebekah, of RAW Design. They designed the much-lauded Linkhaus building, which was more of a success than the restaurant.

Wichita’s Lifeboat Creative is handling advertising, and Todd Ramsey, who isn’t related to Michael Ramsey, is handling public relations through his new Apples & Arrows firm.

Lowry said Eyster and Michael Ramsey are all about team building and creativity.

“It didn’t take long to figure it out: They’re really smart,” she said.

Eyster and Ramsey don’t seem to be facing any criticism, such as the kind the Minnesota Guys of Real Development have attracted with projects plagued by financial problems. There’s more a curiosity about Eyster and Ramsey than anything.

“What I like is that they live here, they work here, they’re committed to this city with responsible development, which is really refreshing,” Lowry said.

“I think there’s a lot of people waiting on the sidelines with their fingers crossed … watching as they breathe new life into the downtown area.”

Patrick Ahern, of Grubb & Ellis/Martens Commercial Group, represented the seller in the sale of the Protection One building to Eyster.

“It’s exciting what they’re doing,” Ahern said. “Their social media strategy with the Lux, it’s a new way to market a property that’s going to be redeveloped,” he said of utilizing tools such as Twitter and Facebook. “It’s really creative. We’re pretty impressed.

“If they can do the Lux, and they have more people living in downtown, it’s going to be better for everybody.”

Ahern said there used to be a saying in downtown real estate: “How can you make a small fortune in downtown real estate? And the joke was to start with a large fortune.” He thinks that’s changed.

Ramsey said it’s not about fortunes.

“We’re not trying to swing for the fences,” he said. “We’re not trying to break the bank on the return on these.”

Eyster said his motivation is simple.

“I want a city life (in) downtown Wichita.”

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