Keeper of the Plans

Wichita’s newest park — a 91-acre wetlands — is officially open to the public

Wichita’s newest public park is open and ready for visitors — sort of.

Pracht Wetlands Park, on 29th Street just east of Maize Road, had its official ribbon-cutting in late May, though the park is still technically a work in progress.

It hasn’t even been listed on the city’s Park and Recreation website yet, but that doesn’t mean you can’t check it out now.

The 91-acre park, which has been branded a rare and unique “urban wetland park” with the ability to attract tourists, is being constructed in five phases — the first two of which have been completed.

Now, people can walk over galvanized-steel boardwalks and watch birds behind two observation points similar to duck blinds. Eventually there will be a half-mile loop of boardwalk circling the northern half of the park with multiple such observation points and an observation tower.

Every year, thousands of migratory birds — including egrets and herons — stop at the park.

Cranes, pheasant, turkey, deer, badgers, beavers, and various amphibians can all be seen there as well.

It’s what Troy Houtman, the city’s director of parks and recreation, calls a “passive park.”

Think more Great Plains Nature Center than playground.

“It’s an area with a lot of lush, green vegetation, and all that stuff is good for the environment,” Houtman said. “It’s an opportunity for wildlife, birds in particular, to have a sanctuary.”

It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Even as you walk through a designated wetland, the sound of cars whizzing past on 29th Street or Maize Road blends together with the birds’ chirping, and signs for HomeGoods and the Hampton Inn are clearly visible.

Those will be less noticeable as the boardwalks expand farther south in future phases of construction.

It might take a while for that progress to come, however; the total budget for the project is around $7.5 million, and just “a shade under $2 million” has been invested in it so far, said Bryan Frye, who is the City Council representative for the area.

The next time public funding is scheduled to be spent on the park isn’t expected until 2023, Frye said, when around $1.5 million has been budgeted to create another duck blind and expand the boardwalk further to the southeast. That capital-improvement budget has not been approved yet.

“This isn’t a scrape-and-build,” Frye said. “This is a very environmentally sensitive location with animals and plant life, and you’re working in water. You’ve got to be very careful, very deliberate and very patient. It’s not something you want to rush.”

In the absence of available public dollars, city officials are looking for grants, sponsorships and other sources of funding.

The donations are already coming in.

Wester Energy’s Green Team — a group of employees and retiree volunteers that regularly plants trees, native grasses and builds trails — has committed to building a nature trail along the perimeter of Pracht Wetlands Park, Houtman said. That trail is roughly 1.25 miles long.

The project, which is being donated by the utility company, “hopefully will be done this fall into spring,” Houtman said.

“It will add a lot to the park,” he said.

The land was owned by the Pracht family from 1921 to 2015, when it was sold to Slawson Cos. (Cadillac Lake, LLC).

Slawson donated the land to the city for it to be open to the public as a park.

Just to the west of Pracht Wetlands Park, Slawson is planning for a major new retail-and-restaurant development in conjunction with the recently built Hampton Inn hotel at 29th and Maize — called Cadillac Lake.

In March, Hobby Lobby was revealed to be the first major tenant coming to Cadillac Lake.

The idea is that Pracht Wetlands Park will work in conjunction with the planned economic development — a place that people can visit “while they’re waiting for a table or after dinner,” Frye said.

That, and it’s a regular draw for “birdwatchers and just lovers of nature,” he added.

“It’s certainly an eco-tourism opportunity,” Frye said. “It’s pretty unique — you don’t have this type of opportunity within a normal urban environment.”

Matt Riedl covers arts and entertainment news for the Wichita Eagle and has done so since 2015. He maintains the Keeper of the Plans blog on Facebook, dedicated to keeping Wichitans abreast of all things fun.