Former Eagle columnist and editorial page editor Randy Brown died this week. He will be greatly missed. These are some of the many columns he wrote during his 21 years at The Eagle:
Columnist to Wichita: Grow up and get involved
This may be my last newspaper column. Hold the applause. It may not be. And, anyway, I’ll still be around town. I’ve been working at the daily journalism racket for more than 30 years – almost 21 at The Eagle, seven at KAKE-TV and a few at the Oklahoma Journal and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in my younger days.
Never miss a local story.
Now I’m going to take early retirement from the Old Bird and move on to something else I’ve been doing with pleasure for more than 30 years – teaching writing at Wichita State University. I’ll get to do it full time instead of every semester or three.
It’s going to feel strange not climbing those golden stairs to the Ivory Tower every weekday morning to advise the world in general and Wichita in specific.
So I’d better take this chance to get a few things off of my chest.
Let me set a quick ground rule for this possible last blast. I’m a project kind of guy. I know beauty’s only skin-deep, but I love to see tangible evidence that Wichita is moving forward. But I’m only going to talk about one pet project today. So you’ll be spared my infinite wisdom on big matters unfinished or undone: a downtown arena, Old Town, river-corridor development, bridges to the west side, the Kellogg Expressway, a cure for smelly water, an end to Kansas heat and the like.
Wichita needs to grow up.
A friend and former colleague of mine at KAKE, Larry Hatteberg, once likened our town to an attractive young person in puberty. Well, our puberty needs to end sometime before the next Ice Age.
This community needs to find a sense of itself, of its identity.
It needs folks who understand that the world doesn’t end at the foot of their driveway or around the corner.
Truly progressive communities have that breed of cat in quantity. Perhaps those cats understand that community vitality and prosperity influence their own fortunes.
We need to stuff our NIMBYism, our knee-jerk antitaxism, our small-town and small-time thinking, our woe-is-us mentality.
Now, about our civic life. We need to get off of our duffs.
I understand that political apathy is sweeping the nation, but that doesn’t make it any healthier for Wichita.
It’s not just that we don’t vote, though we don’t. It’s also that we don’t run for office and don’t get involved much with those who do.
It ain’t quantum physics. Those who leave the political process in the hands of a few leave their destiny in the hands of a few.
Now to my pet project.
The recent struggles of the Kansas Aviation Museum once again confirm an ugly truth: The lack of a first-class, world-class air museum in this city is nothing less than a community disgrace.
In a column 11 years ago, I suggested sarcastically that until Wichita has such a museum it stop calling itself “the Air Capital of the World.” I renew that suggestion - with less sarcasm.
I say all this with great affection for the place that’s become my home over the past three decades.
Wichita may have plenty of needs, but it has even more potential. Our problems are largely those of attitude, of figuring out how we can do things instead of dwelling on why we can’t, of talking the community up and not down.
We don’t need to make nice all the time. We do need to make constructive.
Unlike many communities, we have the resources and the smarts to meet our needs and solve our problems.
That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it. And I’ll be around town to defend it.
CAVE cranky on beauty, tourism
The CAVEpeople are out again. You know them. The Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Letters roll in. Opinion Line hums. Yours truly gets an earful.
Three hot topics this hot late June:
• Money wasted on the “circle of light” at McLean and Central and any other public art, a perennial Wichita gripe.
• Money soon to be wasted on river beautification.
• Money soon to be wasted on campaigns to attract tourists.
For the true CAVEman, public spending is never about supporting the community or its worthy institutions. It’s all about him.
Public art is ugly. It’s a waste of money. That’s why taxes are so high.
The riverbanks look OK. More beautification is a waste of money. That’s why taxes are so high.
Tourists won’t come here anyway. Tourist campaigns are a waste of money. That’s why taxes are so high.
I don’t wish to insult everyone who’s against public art, beautification or tourist campaigns. There are citizens with higher motives than hatred for the taxman.
The other day, an e-mail about setting priorities floated into my virtual space. The writer artfully suggested that city leaders are way off-base for wasting money on trivialities such as public art or tourism promotion when it could be spent on worthier causes such as helping the homeless.
Not a new thought, but timely, and rationally expressed.
I’m all for helping the homeless – and the city should be more aggressive about that. Unlike many social services, it’s a key responsibility of local government.
But I’d hate to see a penny less spent on public art, beautification or tourism.
It’s vital that cities and their leaders take the initiative to make themselves more attractive and interesting – because nobody else will.
This is a clear boon to Wichita, says City Manager Chris Cherches, a man who is not noted for his free spending or trivial nature.
The money for beautification, from tree-planting to the “circle of light, “ is money well-spent, Mr. Cherches says. “In terms of how the city is viewed nationally, I can tell you it’s changed in a big way” because of public art and other such amenities.
Mr. Cherches is in a position to know.
Of course, this is not about just tossing tax bucks into the wind and hoping for the best, either. Matters of beautification and art, and of attracting people to the community, selling them on it and even getting them to stay here, are really public-private ventures.
The private DeVore Foundation, for example, donated the “realistic” downtown bronze sculptures as part of the Douglas streetscaping project. Some artsy locals think they’re corny, but I can tell you some pretty hip visitors think they’re wonderful.
The Wichita Art Museum expansion is a public-private deal, and the Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau couldn’t function without its private business members and so on.
How do you convince CAVEpeople that these kinds of things are of real value to the community, that they repay their cost many times over by enriching the bottom line – and the human spirit?
You don’t. You can’t.
Wichita’s public art make you crazy? Well, you better get over it
Here’s your blue-light special for today: This column is not about the mess in Florida. It’s a confessional. I’m confessing that I like public art.
I even like the “Tripodal,” missing since 1997.
This is risky business in Wichita, where many folks hyperventilate when streets and sidewalks are dressed up with bricks.
Yes, I’m one of the pointy heads who believe it’s OK to spend tax money to jazz up our public buildings, streets, bridges, parks and other grassy areas.
I do draw the line at freeway art, such as the “Time Flies” murals embedded in the walls of Kellogg as it swoops under the bridge at Oliver.
Not because there’s anything wrong with “Time Flies.” It’s kinda cute.
But I tend to want folks driving at 75 miles an hour – the de facto speed limit on the Kellogg Expressway – to pay attention to where they’re going, not gawk at squiggles in the concrete.
This kind of stuff might be acceptable in many towns, where automobiles sometimes have passengers. There the passengers can appreciate the art.
But in Wichita almost no one ever rides with anyone else.
Hey, it’s Wichita. Passengers are for liberals.
I mention all this because of the little dustup about the city of Wichita’s latest public art project – the installation of a “circle of light” at the strange intersection of Central, McLean and Meridian.
The circle will be formed by 14 neon towers stretching 32 feet into the air – tall stuff by our standards. The towers will change color as often as every hour, programmed by computer.
City officials say the effect will be warm and wonderful. They say the circle will be a western gateway to downtown and the Riverside museum district .
The cost is $363,000 in city money, which briefly was your money and mine.
Still, it sounds cool to me, Mr. Public Art Lover, besides which it was designed by Wichita artist Steve Murillo, who is national class. Mr. Murillo’s work is found at some of my favorite local attractions, such as the Larkspur bar and the River City Brewery.
Other good citizens demur.
The reaction to the news of the project a couple of weeks ago has fallen into two categories:
• Those who hate the idea.
• Those who hate the idea and worry about the electric bills.
Ah, but there is a ray of sunlight in the gloom.
West-sider Rita Pressnall first heard about the project from an Eagle reporter. Her bottom-line reaction:
“Any artful enhancement we have in this city is to our benefit.”
There, ladies and gentlemen, is the crux of the matter.
Wichita is a wonderful place, but it lacks overwhelming natural beauty, to put it gently. More than almost any other city of its heft in this part of the world, Wichita needs, as Ms. Pressnall put it, artful enhancement.
Fortunately, though this may disgust many good citizens, Wichita will continue to get artful enhancement using our tax money. Public art is now a part of the planning process for every significant public-works project.
Even the dowdy stretch of Central currently under improvement, from the aforementioned “circle of light” west to I-235, will be artfully enhanced by a moving steel sculpture at Central Avenue and Zoo Boulevard.
Good citizens, think not of all the potholes that could be repaired with the money for such artful enhancement.
Think instead of Vicki Scuri’s graceful “sails” on the Douglas and Lewis bridges downtown. Think of the magnificent 11th Street Bridge design by Randal Julian. Think of the “Wind Spirit Gateway” by Robert Roesch at Kellogg and Main, even though no one can properly appreciate it without causing a multicar collision.
And think of the “Tripodal.”
Sources tell me that James Rosati’s sculpture – which stood stark and spidery on the north side of Century II from 1972 until mid-1997 but since has been hidden away for repairs – soon will reappear, perhaps in time for the Yuletide season.
The original rough estimate of its restoration was $200,000, more than twice its original cost.
Instead, it has been restored with donated materials and by volunteer labor.
Feel better now?
The bottom line: Arkansas River pollution has a filthy history
I’m disgusted. Yes, editorial writers are paid to be disgusted. But this disgust goes way back to when I was a reporter for the Wichita Sun, a feisty weekly newspaper founded by my favorite local hero and genius, Martin Umansky, who died earlier this month after spending several creative lifetimes fighting for a better Wichita.
My prime task in those days was to write the lead piece for Page One. Here’s the beginning of one such story:
“The upper portion of the Arkansas River flows out of the Colorado Rockies, meanders across about 600 miles of Kansas prairie and curls into Keystone Reservoir in northeast Oklahoma.
“It picks up a lot of dirt, chemicals, treated garbage and assorted crud along the way.
“The Sun has learned that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates the Upper Arkansas the second most polluted stream in the nation....”
The date of that piece was Oct. 23, 1974.
We never learn.
Environmentalists, agricultural interests, city dwellers, you name it, have argued over the years about what causes Kansas’ overabundance of water pollution. Is it agribusiness? Is it the cities? Is it natural chemicals such as salt with which Kansas is so “blessed”?
The answer always has been “yes.”
But in this case, in Wichita, in May of 2000, we know precisely who the enemy is. Us.
Tests by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment show that the Arkansas is clean enough for recreational uses when it flows through Maize northwest of Wichita. By the time it gets to Derby southeast of the city, it often has become dangerously infected with bacteria from human and animal waste.
Just as disturbing, this variation on the dirty-Arkansas theme is fairly recent.
By 1990 – and give some credit to Wichita’s sewage-treatment efforts – the river was regularly clean enough for boating, fishing, even swimming.
By 1998, it began to deteriorate once more.
Now the problem is chronic.
Early in this year’s River Festival, the river again became unfit for human contact. That prompted festival officials to cancel an event because of pollution for the first time – though the river also was too nasty for recreation during at least part of last year’s festival, though few knew it at the time.
The river is now vulnerable to bacteria attacks just about anytime, but especially after significant rainfall.
The general cause of this disgraceful situation seems to boil down to one word:
Northwest Wichita and environs have been growing rapidly. That means land is cleared and paved and otherwise doctored. That means rainwater collects the, uh, stuff, and runs off into the river itself or into the countless streams and storm sewers that feed into the river.
But precisely where all this, uh, stuff is coming from is not at all clear. The suspects: septic tanks and sewer lines gone bad, nearby farms, even pet, uh, stuff.
Want some villains? Take your pick.
• The Environmental Protection Agency, which huffs and puffs, and then huffs and puffs some more.
• KDHE, which has been regularly testing the river only every two months but thinks it’s doing a great job and is being “picked on.”
• The City of Wichita and the County of Sedgwick, for not pushing harder for a clean river.
• Other cities along the river and its tributaries, for the same reasons.
• Us, for generations of river abuse.
But blame, schmame. I have an action plan.
One: Do what it takes to find out what’s causing this intolerable situation.
Two: Do what it takes to fix it, no matter how long it takes, which some experts figure might be at least a decade.
Once the Arkansas River flowed a quarter of a mile wide through western Kansas. Now it is often bone-dry west of Great Bend.
The river has been irrigated into insignificance, dammed up, channeled and assaulted with every manner of rural and urban abuse.
Too often it is the subject of scorn, a joke.
Yet not so many miles from Wichita are places where herons fish, deer drink, beavers work, flatheads lurk and a new scene of rare Kansas beauty is just around the bend.
Here and there the river fights back, despite our indifference, our neglect, our worst efforts.
But for how long?
’90s set stage for goals of ’00s
Yes, friends and neighbors, there’s good reason to celebrate our entry into the year 2000. And not just because times are good for most of us.
Call me Mr. Pollyanna, but something powerful happened in Wichita in the ’90s. Chances are, many generations of Wichitans will be thankful for it.
What happened was a new burst of leadership, a spirit that can serve this often conflicted community into the ’00s and beyond.
You’ve heard it before, but most of the second half of the 20th century was quite a roller-coaster ride for Wichita.
Yes, there were civic uppers along the way. Among them:
• The community campaign to build the Century II complex, led by Mayor Herb Lindsley in the early 1960s and endorsed by voters.
• The community campaign to build the Sedgwick County Zoo, now the state’s No. 1 attraction for visitors, given the OK by the Sedgwick County Commission, also in the 1960s, and also endorsed by the voters.
• The whisper of the promise of Old Town in the 1980s, led by early “pioneers” such as Rich Vliet and David Burk.
But for every opportunity taken, more were missed. So much didn’t get done. Freeways didn’t get built when the cost was low and federal money was there for the taking. The public schools often went begging. Downtown deteriorated. Corners were cut on even some of the biggest and best community projects, such as Century II.
And when things got bad, which happened on a semi-regular basis from the late ’60s to the late ’80s, the community’s tendency was to just let it ride.
The city’s new moving and shaking in the ’90s came about partially because Wichita voters, traditionally a cranky bunch, decided to put just a little more trust in their elected officials.
A major city government makeover started in the ’80s.
• Wichitans increased City Council terms from two to four years.
• They decided they wanted to pick their City Council members by district, rather than at-large.
• They decided to elect their mayors by popular citywide vote. Previously, the mayor’s job had been mainly ceremonial. Council members had picked one of their own every year to chair meetings and cut ribbons.
• They turned down significant pay raises for the mayor and council – but when the mayor and council later decided on their own to increase the pay of the offices, the voters essentially gave them a free pass.
The bottom line is that the voters handed their leaders a qualified mandate to lead. (Being cranky Wichitans, they also set term limits for the mayor and council.)
And their leaders, by and large, accepted that mandate.
A seminal moment came in May 1991, when entrepreneur Jack P. DeBoer turned up the pressure for downtown revitalization with a stunning $300 million public-private plan.
That galvanized support for the revitalization effort. It also made some folks angry. It also woke others up. And overall, it seemed to launch Wichita, less cautiously than usual, into a new era.
Once, the city’s anti-leadership attitude had been captured in a remark attributed to banker/civic leader Jordan Haines: “You can get a lot done here . . . if you don’t let ’em catch you leading.”
But with DeBoer’s bold move, bumper stickers popped up all over town: “Jack’s right. Let’s do it.”
The DeBoer plan has since been sliced and diced, but his out-of-the-box big thinking came at just the right time.
Old Town started to bubble and boogie. Plans for the riverfront began to take shape.
The push for the long-needed downtown convention hotel started in earnest in 1994 on Mayor Elma Broadfoot’s watch, and finished in 1997, when the hotel opened on Mayor Bob Knight’s watch.
Other City Council members caught the fever in the ’90s, or already had it. Joan Cole, a fighter for her complex inner-city district who also possesses a fine citywide vision, led the push for the Hyatt, which has exceeded original projections for occupancy and has added an impressive dimension to the Century II area.
Former council member Greg Ferris also helped put together the $30 million Hyatt deal. And he stepped out front with leadership of two controversial projects that died aborning: a casino complex on the river and a downtown arena.
No look at the new spirit of the ’90s is complete without significant emphasis on the name of David Burk, who has been the driving force behind Old Town for the entire decade. Cole has called him “an incredible combination of a visionary and a pragmatic architect/developer.” Without him, Old Town as we know it simply would not exist.
Finally, there is the quintessential bridge project from one century to the next – Exploration Place, which could turn out to be the best idea of Wichita’ s 20th century. The visionaries of this children’s museum/science center – including attorney Phil Frick and philanthropist Velma Wallace – insisted from the start that their $60-million-plus project would be done right – with no shortcuts or qualifications – or not at all. That doesn’t happen too often in this town.
But, by golly, they persevered and pulled it off. Exploration Place will open this spring. It is destined to become Wichita’s signature attraction, with regional, even national, pull.
The hot concept for the ’90s was the public-private project. Exploration Place. The Hyatt. Old Town. Even the Northeast Expressway, with most of the land for the city’s hunk of road donated by George Ablah and Koch Industries. That cooperation is already extending into the projects of the ’00s: the Eaton Hotel/Carey House Square block restoration and the expansion of the Wichita Art Museum, to name two.
In fact, though there’s plenty of conflict and contention still left in a town still groping for its identity, there’s also been a serious outbreak of harmony.
• Wichita City Council members are a diverse bunch with diverse interests – district elections have seen to that – but they’re on the same progressive page much of the time.
• Ditto, amazingly enough, for the Wichita school board, which just a few years ago was a hotbed of feuding, fussing and fighting.
• Last summer, city and county officials – aka the Hatfields and the McCoys – signed Compact 2000: “to seek to improve the quality of services delivered to the community while developing cooperative agendas that will bring about improved, most cost-effective services.” I think that means they’re going to try to work better together.
• The Regional Economic Area Partnership group, the brainchild of Mayor Knight, who has long been a pusher of regional economic strategies, has grown to about 30 cities in south-central Kansas – many of whom historically have been suspicious of one another and almost all of them suspicious of big bad Wichita.
• Even some of the leaders of the Sedgwick County legislative delegation, which is marked by ideological splits wider than the Grand Canyon, are vowing to work together to get this region’s proper share of state goodies, such as money from the new 10-year, $13 billion state transportation program.
Economically, we have become more diverse and resilient than we ever could have dreamed. In the late 1970s, any aircraft layoff of a few hundred was a staggering blow to the community. In the late 1990s, a Boeing layoff of more than 4,000 was swamped with job growth elsewhere.
The Wichita economy is operating at a high and powerful level, providing the best social program known to man: lots of jobs. In 1999, the community’s employment reached record highs; in July, employment cracked the 290,000 mark.
Of course, there is much to be done. Public education must be given the tools to succeed. Kellogg should be finished – and who knows what millennium that will occur in. Our water supply – our most precious natural resource – must be protected. Our reluctance to plan the community’s growth should be overcome. We must do something about air travel. To reach our potential – that most elusive of accomplishments – we must nurture and grow our lifestyle offerings: cultural, entertainment and sports activities and events. And speaking of potential, we’ll never reach it without a showcase downtown arena.
And, yes, most of the incomplete ruminations above form nothing more than a rosy and simplistic look at our recent past.
But for most Wichitans alive today, the progress of the ’90s was unprecedented – and the decade just past has laid the foundation for Wichita to meet a challenge often articulated by Mayor Knight:
To make Wichita one of America’s great mid-sized cities.
In the ’00s and beyond, that goal is within our reach, if we will stretch out and grasp it.
What can we do about naysayers, whiners and aginners?
I hurried down Douglas, puffing little Michelin men into the cold morning air. I needed help. My sources had told me that the guy I was looking for was in Naftzger Park. They were right.
I hardly recognized him curled up on a park bench under a blanket of Wichita Business Journals and Old Town Gazettes.
I walked up to his bench. He bolted upright, papers flying.
“Jeez, Brown,” he growled, “don’t sneak up on me like that.”
It was him all right. Jaylord Dudley, author, raconteur, bon vivant and philosopher-king of the Wichita cognoscenti until a fondness for 3.2 beer and betting the puppies took him down.
His breath could have launched a thousand pizzas. His eyes looked like two spiderwebs dunked in red ink.
“It’s been a long time,” I said.
He squinted at me in the morning sun. “Not long enough, Brown. Whaddaya want?”
He snorted. “Should I alert the rest of the media?”
“No, Jaylord, I mean it. Here we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, and Wichita still hasn’t found its soul.”
He rolled his eyes.
“We’re like Dorothy on the road to Oz, “I said, searching desperately for a metaphor. “Except we’re not looking for courage, a heart or a brain. We’re looking for our identity, our vision, our sense of community.”
“For my money,” he said, “we could use all of the above. But let’s not get greedy. When did this blinding flash of insight hit you?”
“I got to thinking about Wichita’s future. I got to thinking that we’re wasting our momentum in these high times. I got to thinking that’s because we don’t know who we are or where we’re going. Other cities know. Oklahoma City wants to be a big city, so it’s going all out. Tulsa is green country. Springfield is country cool. Even Topeka knows what it wants to be.”
“You mean a place where everybody feeds at the public trough?”
Jaylord rubbed a gnarled hand across his gnarled forehead. “You editorial writers give me a headache, and I already gotta headache. You got any Midol?”
I mumbled a “no,” and slipped him a fin. “Try the QuikTrip. And what do you mean about us editorial writers?”
“You guys are always writing about vision and a sense of community. Yadda yadda. You think everybody’s going to join hands and sing ‘Kumbaya’? Get a grip. This is Wichita.”
“What do you mean?”
“We got whiners, gripers and aginners. And we got our professional naysayers.”
“Well, other cities have those kind of folks.”
“Yeah, well, we got an overdose, and those other cities don’t pay so much attention to them. They just get folks together who want to do something and they do it.”
“Well, yeah, maybe.”
“Yeah, maybe, but not here, baby.”
Jaylord was warming to his task. He shook his hands in mock fear and began to prance around his bench. “Oooo, everything we want to do is so big and we’re so little. Oooo, what if somebody doesn’t like it? Oooo, what about Willard Garvey and Karl Peterjohn and Cindy Duckett? Oooo. Run away, run away.”
I protested. “Those are good people with valid points of view.”
“Valid, schmalid. You’re never going to get ’em on your side. You’re wasting your breath. So quit trying to pacify the unpacifiable. Let ’em have their say and get on about your business. Do something. Fix your schools. Finish your Kellogg. Build your downtown arena.”
Then he smiled slyly. “You want a real challenge? Figure out what to do about all my homeless pals here in beautiful downtown Doo-Dah.”
“That is tough,” I said.
“What I’m saying is, stop pandering to all the negative energy in this burg and start creating some positive energy.”
“Why, Jaylord,” I said, “you’re starting to sound like Norman Vincent Peale.”
He offered a tired glare this time. “Look, Brown, I’m a drunk, not a miracle worker. You figure it out.”
He scuttled out of the park, on his way to the QuikTrip for Midol. Or some wine coolers.
I felt better. I walked back to the office, a bounce in my step and a smile on my lips. I never liked “Kumbaya,” anyway.
More than a place to raise family
I saw that phrase again last week – the one that to these old ears is akin to bear claws on a chalkboard.
It popped out innocently enough in a story about Wichita being named an All-America City for the second time in the 1990s.
The quotee, who is guilty of no wrongdoing and thus shall remain nameless, said: “Wichita is a really good place to work and live and raise your family.”
It’s really the second part of that phrase that causes me to want to round up a lynch mob.
Saying that our town is a good place to work and live can be taken literally or might mean any lukewarm thing:
“The traffic isn’t too bad.”
“The taxes aren’t that high.”
“The place doesn’t make me want to throw up.”
But when folks cite as a city’s pre-eminent virtue that it’s a really good place to raise a family, that’s usually a sign that they can’t think of anything else to say.
Don’t get me wrong. Good families are the essential elements of good communities. Wichita should be and is a really good place to raise a family, like Goddard, Caldwell, Winfield, Augusta and dozens of other fine places in the greater south-central Kansas community.
But I’d hope for more much more – when describing Wichita on the verge of the new millennium. We’ve been too wimpy too long about our growing virtues.
I was here in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, when unemployment zoomed to double-digits – and Wichita was regarded as a really good place to raise a family.
I was here through most of the 1970s, when saying that the economy was stagnant was a compliment – and folks said Wichita was a really good place to raise a family.
Through decades when fine dining was a sit-down meal at a fast-food restaurant and haute couture was stuff not on sale at David’s and the opening of a new Holiday Inn was the ultimate lodging thrill – Wichita was a really good place to raise a family.
To us old-timers, what Wichita is today verges on the exciting.
Compared to even the early parts of this decade:
Our public education has unprecedented depth of curriculum and variety of school choices.
Our three universities are thriving.
Our economic strength is world-class.
Our growth is vigorous but manageable.
Our cultural, entertainment, dining, shopping and sporting options are beginning to approach those of the much bigger cities we used to envy.
Our neighborhoods are hotbeds of activism, and crime in most areas is down, down, down.
Best yet, we are finally beginning to shed our “poor li’l Wichita” attitude.
From this perch, the most exciting thing that’s happening is that the naysayers are finally losing. The folks devoted to figuring out how things can get done are overwhelming the cranky bunch devoted to figuring out why things can’t get done.
This doesn’t mean there aren’t miles to go before we sleep or that things can’t go bad. But if we build on the 1999 All-America City Award the way we did when we copped the honor back in 1993, we will support our public schools by giving them the tools they need for the 21st century, we will finish the job downtown, we will fully develop the positive identity as a community we must have to move forward, and we will ride that shared vision to aggressively plan and create our common future.
Let’s use this Independence Day to free ourselves from an old Wichita bogeyman: pessimism. Our inferiority complex should have died years ago. Death to it now.
And, by the way, Wichita is not a really good place to raise a family. It’s on its way to becoming a great place to raise a family.
Mottoes for 21st century: Think big and do things right
OK, it’s late May 1999. Time to start thinking about thinking big. Past time, really, even if the new millennium begins with 2001, not 2000, which is probably the case, although at this point I don’t care and you shouldn’t either, since it’s just a number on life’s big odometer.
Anyway, time’s a-wastin’.
The June-July issue of the Futurist magazine hit my desk last week with a significant thud. “Thinking BIG for the Millennium” was the cover subject. “The Great Cities of the Future” was the lead article.
The cities in question have metropolitan populations of more than a million. They are working; that is, they are able to meet the needs of the vast majority of their citizens. They have lots of potential for growth.
Wichita, of course, flunks the first test; the area’s population will probably hit the 550,000 mark by the time the 2000 Census rolls around, and who knows when or whether it will reach 1 million?
But our town fits the other criteria nicely – better than most cities of a few hundred thousand or more.
Thus, the Futurist’s 10-point manifesto for the future sends powerful messages to the Peerless Princess of the Plains.
Some of the essentials for the 21st century:
• Easy airline access to the global market. We know Mid-Continent is not going to become an international airport, but it has to get much better. Nonstop flights to the coasts – meaning one-stop connections to overseas cities – are high on the wish list.
• “Hinterland” connections. That’s already happening with K-96, K-254 and K-15 and should continue to happen with the new highway program. But we must press ever forward.
• Domed stadiums. No, we’ll never have a 50,000-60,000-70,000-seat dome like New Orleans, Minneapolis, Seattle, etc. But the Futurist’s point – that in order to attract major events a city must have an indoor venue “offering comfortable seating in any weather” – certainly fits with a Wichita-sized 20,000-seat indoor arena.
• Public transportation. Gotta have an efficient rapid transit system that serves all elements of the population, the magazine says. Why? Because traffic congestion kills – literally and figuratively – in cities of almost every size. Congestion wastes endless time and energy; it stunts growth opportunities and it mangles quality of life.
• Green infrastructure. No matter what grand projects are undertaken, cities must plan for and create permanent open spaces: parks, golf courses, even urban forests.
• New political mechanisms. The plans and projects of the future range far across city and county lines. “Wichita” is really a socioeconomic-political mass covering seven or eight south-central Kansas counties, maybe more. Fortunately, Mayor Bob Knight and other enlightened area leaders already have figured this out. One response has been the formation of the Regional Economic Area Partnership; the seven counties it serves have a population of 675,000.
One of the more interesting things about the Futurist’s list of vital elements for the 21st century is that they can create win-win situations.
For its “hinterland connections” the Futurist suggests powerful transportation links such as huge circumferential highways. But the package also must include public transportation and plenty of green space.
One example is Atlanta, which, the Futurist predicts, is a “future supercity.” A 200-mile outer perimeter freeway has been proposed for the Georgia capital. Says the magazine, “This project provides a rare opportunity to create a world model of infrastructure development and greenway conservation.”
My wish for Wichita for the 21st century – along with thinking big – is “do things right.”
The Futurist rightly assumes that the cities-on-the-go in the future will do both, or at least try to. That has not been Wichita’s habit, at least in the 20th century.
One exception is going up right now: Exploration Place. Big thinking got the project started. And the attitude of Phil Frick and Velma Wallace and other Exploration Place pioneers all along has been:
“We’re going to do it right or not do it at all.”
In fact, Exploration Place, which will open next year, should be our theme project for the 21st century.
Think big. Do things right.
Hey, we have a new millennium coming up.