Patrick Ahern has seen downtown Wichita go from a declining office center to a growing mixed-use area.
Ahern, a commercial real estate agent for NAI Martens who specializes in downtown, is from Chicago. He worked in commercial real estate there until coming to Wichita in the 1990s to work for Koch Industries’ corporate real estate department. He joined Martens in 1999 and picked downtown as a focus as an underserved niche.
Ahern, 48, is married to Georgia, and they have two children.
What’s the state of downtown real estate?
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We’ve had a lot of activity in downtown. You can look at the … big projects downtown, the Lux Apartments, the Ambassador Hotel, the YMCA. … You also have the Cathedral (of the Immaculate Conception) and Block One, the leadership center, which is adjacent to the Ambassador. It’s been a banner year.
But none of those is totally private-sector funded. When is that going to happen?
There is a project that is a lot smaller. The Arnold staffing group fixed up their building and put a half million dollars into it. That to me is as big of a bellwether as anything because it’s private money. That is a huge vote for downtown. They could have sold their building and moved east or west, but they obviously believe in downtown.
So, have things really changed downtown since 1999?
For a long time, there would be law firms and accounting firms leaving downtown, and they paid lip service on the way out. Now we’re seeing people staying downtown and being excited about it. When I first started, the big project was the Eaton (Hotel). Political people would get together and have one big project, and it was a photo op ribbon-cutting opportunity that they can hang their hat on. It was a series of panaceas. … A lot of the improvement you saw in downtown was mostly public. Now, it’s more private.
How is it changing?
There are more residential units. There are more than 1,000 residential units, with more coming. Now, will it be the same as it was in the ’50s and ’60s with major department stores down here? No, Von Maur is not coming down here. But that’s not to say it can’t be good, or even better. But it’ll be different from what it was in its heyday.
How do the residential units help?
When you have more residential units, that will support more retail and restaurants. What we’ve seen is a lunch place that opens and closes in six weeks and, a few months later, we see they’ve got a tax lien. I think in the future you will have businesses that will be more vibrant because there will be more people living down here and they can support themselves not only during business hours, but after business hours and on the weekends.
How is the downtown market reacting to the slow disappearance of the Minnesota Guys?
The buildings they condoed, by selling the floors off, has created quite a mess. You have multiple property owners in one building. Some owners have the resources to fix things and others don’t, and the ones who do don’t want to pay for the guy who doesn’t. But that will work itself out through the foreclosure process. And two of their buildings went to auction – Farmers and Bankers, and the Landmark building. Kaufman is being foreclosed on, and it’s no secret that at the Wichita Executive Centre, the lender has taken over operations and is making the decisions now. So, the market is shaking them out. They’re swirling the drain.
What’s the biggest challenge to selling downtown real estate?
It’s still parking. … If you look at the vast majority of space available, there is one correlation. It’s lack of parking. … Wichita is a small city, and people are not interested in or willing to walk more than half a block for parking.
Nothing has bloomed up around the arena. Why?
On the nights when you have a major event, say Billy Joel, the restaurants in the area, like Cafe Bel Ami, are sold out. The nights when you have hockey games, not so much. If there was a major event more frequently, maybe stuff would have popped up around it. But there is not enough going on to support a new sports bar across the street.
So, does that mean we’ll never see any economic overflow from the arena?
I don’t think so. I see people coming from western Kansas, from Hutch or wherever, coming to country concerts, staying overnight, eating out and whooping it up at Old Town. Even with the smaller stuff, like the hockey games, there is some economic benefit.
What project are you more excited about?
Union Station. It’s a big project, 111,000 square feet, and I think it’s got great potential. I look at the vacancy rate in Old Town and there’s very little, if any, vacancies. I think there is potential for office and retail there, and it provides a nice tie between Old Town and the arena.