Special Reports

February 28, 2013

Wichita residents say they love their city but would like to see some improvements

Wichita is a big city with a small-town family environment.

Wichita is a big city with a small-town family environment.

Or a small city with big-city amenities.

Or a city big enough to offer a variety of life-enriching activities yet small enough to get around quickly.

Or a midsize city with something for everyone but not quite enough of everything.

These were some of the characterizations that emerged from interviews with residents and in an Eagle survey conducted through the Public Insight Network about why we live here.

However they viewed the city, people had plenty to say about what improvements they’d like to see in it in the future.

Heading the list: Infrastructure repairs such as sewers and streets, better public transportation, more entertainment venues, an economy less dependent on the aviation industry, continued development of the downtown and Old Town areas, more shops and things to do along the river and a more-efficient government

The natural landscape was praised and condemned, and so was the weather.

Jan Arbuckle of Wichita most enjoys the changing seasons reflected in the cityscape, especially the changing colors of Bradford pear trees and redbuds.

“If you’re from outside Wichita, you’d never think this would be a beautiful town,” she said. But Botanica is one of the best-kept gardens that she has seen, and she’s seen plenty of gardens around the country, she said.

For Arbuckle, a former associate dean at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, Wichita is just the right size of city.

“It has everything we would ever want in daily life, and it provided me a good career,” she said.

It is preferable to other cities where she has lived, she said, including Amarillo, Texas; Los Angeles; and Boston.

“The friendliness of strangers, the incredible generosity of citizens, (and) local government is committed to doing the right thing for citizens,” Arbuckle said.

But Wichita needs to make it a priority to attract and retain innovative businesses in order to delay or avoid a mass out-migration of young people, she said.

Aly Pierson, a 24-year-old legal assistant, was born in Wichita and has remained here to start her career. She lives in Old Town and loves being within walking distance of businesses and restaurants.

It was an eye-opener for her.

“I really didn’t even appreciate Wichita until I moved downtown,” she said. “I always thought I wanted to live elsewhere.”

However, while she applauds efforts to revitalize Old Town, she doesn’t believe that building luxurious apartments and hotels downtown will be worth the money, because there aren’t enough high-paying jobs in the city.

“I have a friend who would love to live downtown, but it’s very pricey,” Pierson said. “Although on one level it is great that Wichita wants to offer these luxuries, I’m not sure it is worth the taxpayers’ dime.”

People who have lived in larger cities said they like Wichita.

Charles Mansfield considered settling in Virginia after retiring from the Air Force in 1976 at age 43. He changed his mind and made Wichita his home because of its central location and a military support system that includes the VA and McConnell Air Force Base, as well as its hospitals, schools and recreation facilities.

In the military, Mansfield got around. He has many places to compare to Wichita.

“Considering Texas, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, California, England, Japan and Vietnam, this has more to offer and greater conveniences,” he said.

But he would like to see the city reduce what he considers an “overabundance of middle and upper-level” management in local government and the Wichita school district.

Dave King, a mental health discharge planner at the El Dorado Correctional Facility, grew up in Illinois but has lived in Kansas for more than 20 years. He and his wife, Laurel, who is from Denver and who works at Via Christi, have lived in other states, but they both ended up with good jobs in Wichita.

“I really think it was the jobs and the climate and the people, the Midwestern values of Kansas,” King said of why they chose to live here. “Kansas is my home.

“In other cities, people were always in a hurry,” he said. “We’re not in a hurry. People’s values tend to be a lot more grounded, and life is slower here.” His wife’s parents moved from Denver to Wichita to be with their grandchildren.

“It’s a good place to raise a family,” King said. “Life is slower and more deliberate and constant.”

But Wichita needs to create more jobs, and not just in the aircraft industry, he said. It needs to bring in other companies, perhaps by promoting the Midwestern values of family and work, he said.

Bill Pearce, 66, said that aside from the climate, Wichita is better than other places he’s lived. One such place was Des Moines.

“They’re the opposite of us. Most of the people there seem to feel like it’s the very best place that there could ever possibly be. They’re really kind of arrogant about it,” said Pearce, who is semi-retired but does some writing and photography and is a managing partner in a small real estate partnership. “We need to be a little less of what we are. As we lead our personal lives, it’s probably best to be a little more modest, as people here can be, but publicly we probably don’t serve ourselves well doing that. I think we could stand to be a little more positive about Wichita.”

We need to “get moving forward,” Pearce said. “Stop being obstructionist to every good idea, and stop blocking plans for the future. And, more importantly, have the will to carry through on things.”

Citing the Intrust Bank Arena and Century II as proven attractions that almost didn’t happen because of strong opposition, Pearce said Wichita is afflicted with a “can’t do” attitude.

“As a late friend often said, ‘If there’s a way to not do something, Wichita will find it,’ ” he said.

Gary O’Neal has lived in Kansas City, Tulsa and Oklahoma City. He moved here in 1987 and has seen progress in the area, citing as examples the development of downtown, the growth of Wichita State University and the arrival of businesses such as Cabela’s.

“I think a lot of times people forget how progressive it is and the strides it’s made in the last 20 years,” he said. “We don’t blow our horn enough. I think sometimes we’re just a little too negative on ourselves.”

O’Neal, who retired as manager of Central Plains Steel nearly 19 months ago, is a former mayor of Bel Aire and chairman of the Sedgwick County Association of Cities.

The area has friendly people, short commutes, all the seasons of the year, cultural and recreational facilities, restaurants and is centrally located, he said.

“There’s good things happening here, and we’re making things happen,” he said. “Let’s keep it going.”

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