Much has been said and written about the downtown master plan in the past few weeks. Even if you have no involvement of any kind with downtown, there are many reasons you should support the Goody Clancy plan.
Wichita needs a vital core area for economic development reasons. Companies interested in relocation are looking for communities with well-educated young workers as part of their site selection criteria.
Site selectors research the availability of this labor pool long before they schedule a site visit for their clients. Too many of Wichita's young people go off to college and don't come back. Unfortunately, the best place to find college grads who grew up in Wichita is at Starbucks the week between Christmas and New Year's as they make their holiday pilgrimage from other vibrant cities.
Will a great downtown Wichita attract every young person in the Midwest? No, probably not, but I believe we can keep more of them and enough for Wichita to be attractive to employers and competitive with similar-sized cities. The execution of a downtown redevelopment plan is vital to this effort. We need to make our city as attractive as possible to existing and prospective employers.
Image is important. Companies interested in relocation often tour a downtown area as part of their due diligence, even if they plan to locate to a suburban area. They do this to gauge civic pride, see what direction a city is heading and to understand what entertainment venues will be available to their work force. More jobs created are less of a tax burden on the rest of us, even if you never attend Music Theatre of Wichita.
Until a few years ago, the migration of retail and office users plus the lack of interest in downtown perpetuated a negative perception of downtown as a viable investment. That perception is no longer the case. We are seeing increased property values as private money flows into downtown projects such as the Broadview renovation, Airbus expansion and several residential developments. Increased property values in downtown mean less of a tax burden on Sedgwick County property owners even if they never hear the words "last call" in Old Town.
We also need to talk about the challenges. Most underutilized buildings have two issues in common — ground leases and lack of parking. Exchange Place at 110 N. Market has sat vacant since January 2000. It sold to Real Development in 2004 for less than the cost of an annual cleaning. The low sale price of this property was due in large part to the fact that 16 different individuals owned the land under the building. Some of the landowners received amounts as nominal as $13.46 per month for the land lease.
It is very difficult to get financing to redevelop a property that sits on leased ground. Wichita needs to develop an incentive to strongly encourage the ground lease owners to sell, at a fair price, to the owner of the improvement. It is hard to derive taxes from a property so hard to sell and develop.
As a leasing agent for several downtown office properties, about half of the questions that I field from potential office users interested in downtown office space are related to parking. If you don't have parking, you don't have tenants. The exodus of stockbrokers and law firms in recent years is related to this issue. Well-lit, safe, modern, convenient parking helps level the playing field. An investment in parking structures that can be used 24 hours a day will cause underutilized properties to find their way back to being productive members of the tax base.
A final reason to support the Goody Clancy plan to redevelop downtown Wichita is that it is a plan. For so long we have had a series of well-intentioned downtown projects. Now we have a direction. The plan benefits all of us, even if you have no intention of kicking off the holiday season with the Rockettes at the Intrust Bank Arena this November.