March 16, 2011

Incumbent Brewer fights for aviation, downtown renewal

Mayor Carl Brewer hasn't had to use the sword encased above his desk in City Hall.

Mayor Carl Brewer hasn't had to use the sword encased above his desk in City Hall.

But to hear him talk about how the city defends its aviation industry against offers from other cities — or his defense of investing in downtown revitalization — you'd think the sword is the only thing he hasn't tried in the past four years.

The city has given straight cash to retain Hawker Beechcraft, tax abatements to several smaller companies, a bailout loan to keep a downtown theater in business and a portfolio of incentives to jump-start downtown projects.

Brewer stands by the decisions, though he says they were painful choices.

With confidence, the mayor listed private projects that involved public money: the new Cargill innovation center downtown, renovations at the former Broadview Hotel, a new hotel at WaterWalk, development at or near NewMarket Square in northwest Wichita, the forthcoming Cabela's outdoors store in northeast Wichita.

All are expected to create or save jobs and boost tax revenue for the city and state.

"I would hate to think if we didn't do those what would happen to us," Brewer said. "We fought extremely hard because everything that we've been trying to do, there are other cities that have fought us the entire way to try to take it from us. And they definitely have more money than we do."

Brewer has faced a growing number of consistent critics who see those public incentives for private business as government intrusion that misuses public money in the free market.

But he enjoyed an easy primary race — landing 76 percent of the vote — against mostly newcomers who lacked the name recognition, financing and support he has developed over a decade as an elected city official. He has a massive lead over opponent Darrell Leffew in the only public poll taken thus far.

Brewer wants to continue with the agenda he started four years ago — downtown revitalization, economic diversification and improving quality of life for residents.

But with a council ballot that includes several candidates who embrace limited government, he may not have the support on economic incentives he has enjoyed in the past.

That could be part of what is behind his endorsement of four candidates for City Council — Pete Meitzner in District 2, James Clendenin in District 3, Joshua Blick in District 4 and Jeff Longwell, the incumbent in District 5.

Four years

The mayor of Wichita has just one vote.

The duties are the same as a council member — except the mayor is the figurehead of the city, signing contracts approved by council and making appearances at events.

The title comes with a bigger office, a full-time salary, a better parking spot, more travel opportunities and the type of face time with the community that can help position one for higher office.

Beyond that, the mayor's power lies in his ability to form relationships with six City Council members, the city manager and the city's people.

Brewer has mostly used the office to jump-start downtown development, forge supportive relationships with a good-sized chunk of the city's business community and foster good relationships among council members, despite philosophical differences at times.

Jim Skelton, who left the council earlier this year after being elected to the Sedgwick County Commission, credits Brewer with controlling council meetings well, with fostering good relationships among council members and county officials and for being available.

"The point that really matters is that he was there when I needed his help," Skelton said.

Shortly after Brewer moved into the mayor's office in 2007, word broke that the 2011 United States Bowling Congress Championship the city had landed was pulling out because of disagreements with city officials

The city defended itself by citing an arcane cash-basis law that said it couldn't promise the condition of Century II years into the future.

That didn't resonate well with the community that had been told the event could provide a $100 million punch to the economy.

"We addressed some issues to make sure that never happened again," Brewer said. "That's why we had to get into the city manager search again."

Brewer's campaign promise to work on downtown revitalization drew a crowd of bipartisan supporters, especially among businessmen invested in downtown.

But the idea took an early hit when Bill Warren said he would shut down the Old Town Warren Theatre without a $6 million low-interest loan that would pay off debts and finance renovations at the then 5-year-old theater.

Two years later, Brewer believes the loan was the right move.

"We couldn't afford to have it go out of business," he said. "And ever since we made that investment, it has been thriving and it has been doing well."

WaterWalk, the development at the eastern edge of downtown that has been slow to take shape, is another story.

Brewer said he wishes the developers could have produced some of the exciting restaurants and shops that had been announced.

And he wishes the city and developers would have stuck with the initial idea of having canals weave through the area instead of the series of water fountains that are being installed now.

Brewer said he wishes the city would have started a downtown revitalization plan sooner, but he's proud of what has already been accomplished.

But some investments are on shaky ground — namely, Real Development, also known as the Minnesota Guys, one of the most active development groups downtown, which has cash flow problems and is working on approval for additional lending.

"I know they're still working on it, so I haven't completely given up on them," Brewer said. "But there becomes a point in time. They've done some great things here. We never tout the things that they have done."

That includes renovating several buildings and converting some to condos where people are now living.

Brewer said the city's aid to Real Development has improved the city's overall image, particularly the building facade improvements.

"When you see it, to you, it looks like blight," he said, referring to how some of the buildings used to look. "And we make those improvements and everyone else who sees it, it appears that our city is healthy and it's appealing."

But Brewer thinks Real Development was too aggressive, and he said the city has been clear that it doesn't want to talk about new projects until Real Development pays off existing debts to contractors.

Growing up

By now, most who care to know Brewer know him.

He occasionally hunts, goes fishing when time allows and shops at Walmart, sometimes after midnight.

Photos of Colin Powell and Barack Obama and paintings of Buffalo Soldiers (an all-African-American cavalry regiment formed in the late 1800s) hang in his office. He jokes with council members and staff and tries to balance chili cookoffs and BBQ competitions with diet and the Mayor's 5K race.

Brewer grew up poor and was essentially the man of the house by age 5. He graduated from North High, enlisted in the Kansas Army National Guard, took a community college classes and landed a job at Cessna.

He married, had two kids and later divorced.

He has been married to Cathy for more than 30 years and took a leave of absence from his job as an operations manager at Spirit AeroSystems to be mayor.

His said his job as mayor has kept him too busy to complete his degree at Friends University, but he still plans to get a degree someday.

Brewer got involved with his neighborhood association, attended citizen participation meetings organized by City Hall and later ran for the District 1 seat, which he held from 2001 until he became the city's first African-American elected as mayor in 2007.

He said his passion for Wichita and its people has been constant.

"I feel like my life belongs to them," he said.

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