In 1996, Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Getz strolled along Douglas downtown for a column he was writing about a city beautification project.
He counted eight vacant storefronts in three blocks. Of the businesses he did visit, almost all are now gone.
The once-handsome main street of Wichita in recent decades sported a worn, gap-tooth look, with many buildings vacant or torn down for parking lots. For eight years, pedestrians between Main and Market streets passed a large pit — the result of a failed project — that sometimes filled with rain and was dubbed “Lake Douglas.”
Today, Douglas is sizzling, with $280 million in projects downtown since 2010.
Some of those parking lots are now starting to attract construction. Even Lake Douglas was filled in and is now a popular park.
Major projects of the last decade include the Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview, the Kansas Leadership Center, the Ambassador Hotel, the CorTen Building and The Douglas apartments, in addition to a host of smaller projects.
The renovation of Union Station and a Hilton Garden Inn are underway. Planned projects include a new baseball stadium west of the river and, maybe, a renovation or reconstruction of Century II.
The latest milestone is the move of Cargill Protein to the former Wichita Eagle location at 825 E. Douglas. The $60 million project, set for completion in 2018, will create a building able to hold 950 employees.
The city’s largest parking garage will sit at the south end of the complex.
Steve Anthimides, vice president of Athena Jewelry, 219 E. Douglas, has watched with excitement the activity level speeding up.
“As we get more people, it becomes more vibrant and alive,” he said. “It started with Old Town and then Delano and now, in the core area, there are apartments sprouting up all over the place.
“It can only bring good things.”
A full-sized replica of Marilyn Monroe trying to keep her skirt from blowing up stood playfully in the corner window of A Legacy Antique Mall, 105 S. Emporia, for years.
Owner Diana Watson swore she’d never sell it. And then one day it was gone.
Country singer Miranda Lambert visited the store in 2013 when then husband-Blake Shelton played a concert at Intrust Bank Arena, Watson said. Lambert came in six times that day to shop.
“She got it out of me,” was all Watson would say about the deal for the missing Marilyn.
Watson loves to talk about the celebrities and their bands and crews who have come by in their down time before a show. She said she has served Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, Dave Matthews, Belinda Carlisle, Elliot Gould, members of Little Big Town and, of course, Kirstie Alley.
She’s got her Beatles memorabilia ready in case Paul McCartney stops by.
But she also loves that regular folks are walking by in increasing numbers.
“It’s all good,” she said. “We’re finally getting the place alive again.”
It’s the kind of interaction that makes Douglas unique. On a nice spring day, you can pass a homeless man stretched out asleep on the sidewalk, an executive on her way to lunch, a roller skater, a couple walking their dog, tourists and construction workers.
This month the city announced that its Q-line trolley service will run from Delano to College Hill, connecting other parts of Douglas with downtown.
As downtown buildings are renovated, many have taken pains to present an inviting look to passers-by with big windows, lights, displays, desks and visible conference rooms. That, along with the flower planters and street art, changes the character of the street. It builds connection and interest, making the walk along Douglas less of a chore.
“It’s like when you go to Chicago or New York; you will walk blocks without thinking about it,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership.
The biggest change happens after 5 p.m. because, since 2010, about 1,600 housing units have opened, are under construction or are in the pipeline. When all those units are built, the number of units downtown will more than double, to about 2,900. The Greater Wichita Partnership estimates the downtown has gained about 900 residents, to a total of 2,280, since 2010.
A fun, hopping downtown with plenty to do and places to live will attract educated young professionals, Fluhr said.
And companies will see that and be attracted both to the workforce and to a city that is energetic.
“We are positioning ourselves to be that attractive location,” Fluhr said.
“It does offer a vibrant downtown. It does offer the amenities of a new airport to fly in and out of. You do have an Innovation Campus that is upping the opportunities for research.
“All of these things are coming together quite nicely to position Wichita to be a very competitive city.”
Despite the obvious progress, downtown advocates can’t declare victory because downtown’s role as an office and employment center continues to erode.
The 67202 ZIP code had lost nearly 15 percent of its businesses and 20 percent of its employees in the decade ending in 2015, according to the U.S. Census’s County Business Pattern data.
The loss of the State Office Building in 2016 and the Wichita school district’s downtown office this summer – employees are moving to the former Southeast High School – will make that decline steeper.
Memphis developer Glenn Ferguson bought a building at 701 E. Second St. in Old Town last year. He intended to convert it into innovative office space, but he said he couldn’t find enough interest at the rent he would have to charge.
So, he’ll turn it into more apartments.
“The office market is not strong enough in Wichita, and downtown in particular,” he said. “You can rent space downtown for $8 or $10 a square foot, which is crazy.
“I’m a little disappointed; it would have been a cool office building.”
More residents, fewer office workers. It’s a shift that people running restaurants and retail shops along Douglas have noticed.
Clay Wedgewood, who has managed the Quiznos Sub Sandwiches at Douglas and Main for 12 years, said he has noticed more people walking by, but fewer stopping in.
His restaurant, which closes at 5 p.m., depends on office workers looking for lunch.
Having the school district’s central office leave downtown and Cargill move several blocks east will only hurt his business more.
When the River Vista apartment project opens on the other side of the river, Wedgewood said, he might stay open later to appeal to residents as well as office workers.
Downtown advocates see that transition – more residents, fewer office workers – as leading to a different kind of downtown success story in the future.
Rather than its traditional role as Wichita’s business center, Douglas and downtown will become a combination of residential, office, retail, restaurants and clubs. It will be a busy, self-supporting, urban center in the middle of a more traditional city of neighborhoods and shopping centers.
It will have a different vibe from the far east and far west commercial areas, giving people and businesses more choices.
It’s already part of the way there. Commercial development always follows residential growth.
As more people live downtown, more retail and more services will open. Then, Fluhr said, the office and retail erosion will reverse itself as more businesses and business startups are attracted to the unusual atmosphere.
That’s why downtown advocates are so excited about Cargill. The company could have moved to a suburban campus, but it stayed downtown specifically because it liked the atmosphere.
It took a spot next to Old Town, close to restaurants and activity because it needs to keep and attract bright young minds in the future.
But, Fluhr said, it also wanted to be part of the revival and transformation of Douglas.
“That’s one of the things that helped us with Cargill,” Fluhr said. “Not only are we talking about talent, but it’s where the city is going.”