What Boston-based consultants Goody Clancy have imagined for downtown Wichita is something much more than it has become in the decades since the department stores closed, major employers moved to the city’s fringes, and decay settled in even along once-grand Douglas Avenue.
Their downtown, as dreamed up with months of public input and study and unveiled to the community last week, won’t just be a place to visit and then, just as quickly, leave.
It will be a neighborhood suitable for walking, working, shopping and living — a place that uses and celebrates the river running through it and uniquely comes to serve and define the city.
It’s not the old downtown Wichita, nor should it be.
It’s a new one that strategically overlays and injects the current one with what attracts people to downtowns now — old construction repurposed as loft living and work spaces; walkable blocks with shopping, dining and nightlife; a cluster of art, culture, creativity and activity.
The first steps, over the next 12 to 18 months, will try to make visible progress along Douglas and in the blocks from the Commerce Street Arts District to Union Station, Naftzger Park and the St. Francis corridor, and try to ease development by creating an inventory of city-owned property in the core.
Sounds great. So what’s this going to cost taxpayers?That question met the consultants repeatedly last week, including at the Sedgwick County Commission and Wichita City Council. And no wonder, given all the public money that’s been invested, sometimes haphazardly, in the core over the years.
Goody Clancy’s expertise and thorough process add credibility to its claim that the plan can be implemented over the next decade with $500 million in private investment and $100 million in public money.
“This plan is very much about leading with private investment, and when a private investment appears to be prudent in the eyes of the city — the right developer, the right project, in the right place — then to support that project with public investment in public uses,” Goody Clancy principal David Dixon told county commissioners, mentioning how a publicly owned parking structure might support three other developments that come along.
He added: “We really want the private sector to trigger the public sector’s actions.”
If the downtown plan is to sustain public support, that had better be a promise as well as a prediction.
As much as citizens would love a vibrant downtown Wichita, and as much of a boost as it would give business and employee recruitment and other economic development efforts, the public funds and political will for core development have their limits right now. Government incentives and other tools need to be used narrowly, and with a long view.
The public leadership will need to be consistent and bold, with an emphasis on how to help business make things happen downtown.
As of last week, the latest downtown plan belongs to Wichita. With enough leaders and believers behind it, it will deliver the downtown Wichita needs and deserves.