Less than two weeks ago, Butler Community College revealed that its Hospitality and Culinary Arts program was one of two contenders to take over the old brick fire station on South Topeka in Wichita. If it was chosen, the program would lease the building from a local developer and spend $4 million adding industrial kitchens, classrooms and offices.
Today, though, the college is no longer in the running to take over the building. It withdrew its name from consideration last week after Butler's president, Kimberly Krull, was sent a cease-and-desist letter from a lawyer representing Wichita State University and WSU Tech that said Butler would be breaking the law if it moved forward with the project without WSU's approval.
The letter, signed by WSU General Counsel David Moses, says that Kansas law and Kansas Board of Regents policy requires approval by WSU and the Board of Regents for Butler to offer courses outside of its service area.
"Any attempt by your institution to try and locate a Hospitality and Culinary Arts program to downtown Wichita is not approved by WSU," the letter read. "Offering such a program in Sedgwick County is directly adverse to the efforts by WSU and WSU Tech as they explore hospitality programmatic options."
Butler has been offering a hospitality program since the 1980s and culinary classes since 2000. It started its culinary program in 2012 and has since graduated dozens of students who are now working in restaurants all over the area.
Reached late last week about Butler's decision to withdraw, Kelly Snedden, Butler's director of college relations and marketing, said Butler stepped away because it had decided it needed more time to work on a collaboration.
On Monday, Krull said it was her intention to continue discussing a collaboration.
"WSU had not been directly involved in the discussions about the development of the Topeka Street firehouse proposal," she said. "However, we have had some meetings with WSU and WSU Tech regarding our curriculum and possible partnership for Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management. Butler is planning to continue those discussions."
Sheree Utash, who is the president of WSU Tech (formerly known as Wichita Area Technical College), said the letter — which she was copied on — was sent after WSU officials were blindsided by an April 19 story on the Wichita Eagle's website, Kansas.com, announcing that Butler's Culinary Arts program was one of two finalists to occupy the building and that the public was invited to hear details at an open house on April 26.
WSU and WSU Tech, Utash said, are interested in developing a comprehensive program that includes culinary arts, hospitality and restaurant management, and tourism, and they envision a state-of-the-art facility.
WSU had been in talks for a year or more with Butler about the possibility of collaborating on such a project, but nothing had been settled, she said. Then they saw they article.
"There had been no discussion with either WSU or WSU Tech about that," she said. "That would be like if I were to go to El Dorado and start making all these plans to build an aviation technical center downtown and then all of the sudden it came out in the local paper. The Butler president wouldn't be very happy about that, and that's really what happened."
Utash said that community colleges are required by Kansas law and by Board of Regents policy to get approval to teach classes outside of their service areas. WSU had been granting its permission since 2012 for Butler to house its hospitality and culinary arts program in the Boston Recreation Center at 6655 W. Zimmerly, and would continue to do so. But they were left out of the discussion about moving into the fire station, Utash said, which wouldn't have enough space for the type of facility WSU envisions.
"We said we would like for them to take themselves out of that equation so we can go to the drawing board and the three of us could work collaboratively to provide something really great for the community and for students," Utash said.
Krull said that Butler had followed the Board of Regents process to get approval from WSU to teach courses in Wichita each semester that it offered classes at the Recreation Center.
But the letter from Moses said that approval for one did not imply approval for the other.
"The situation is substantially different and your institution should not consider the previous approval that culinary arts can be offered at the Boston Rec Center as approval of what is described in the April 19, 2018 article," the letter read.
Paul Jackson, the commercial real estate developer who leads Vantage Point Properties Inc., was offering to buy the fire station for $100,000 and then lease it to Butler Community College. He found out just days before last week's open house that his proposed tenant was pulling out.
He went ahead with the community open house, where the city was seeking feedback from residents about whether it should sell the space to Vantage or to a group consisting of oilman Alan Banta, marketing executive Bruce Rowley and developer Mike Snyder, who want to turn the fire station into FireWorx, a dedicated space for artists and startup businesses. They'd offered $75,000 for the building.
Jackson said he still wanted the space and was developing a new plan to turn it into an "innovation district" that would be friendly to startups and could, for example, include commercial kitchen space that would be available for rent.
"It's a setback for us that Butler has backed away, but the idea, we feel, is still very sound," Jackson said.
The Wichita City Council is expected to decide soon who gets the building.
Utash said that WSU is still willing to discuss a collaboration with Butler.
"We're still open to working with them in the future," she said. "I believe that something very good will come out of this for our community."