His vision to be a real estate developer and entrepreneur began in childhood.
That’s when Richard Vliet – Rich, to his family and friends — would walk with his grandfather from Midtown to downtown Wichita to go the movies.
“Rich fell in love with the buildings,” said his wife, Marni.
As he grew up, downtown Wichita was beginning to change. Older buildings were looking worn. Longtime businesses were often moving out of downtown and into malls.
Mr. Vliet developed a vision to breathe new life into old buildings and create a buzz and excitement for Wichita’s downtown core, particularly the historic warehouse district known as Old Town.
He was in every sense of the word an urban pioneer, creating restaurants such as Dr. Redbird’s, Looking Glass, Sister Jennie’s and King Lizard BBQ — and later, Larkspur Restaurant, the flagship of Old Town.
“Rich was one of the most inspiring people I know,” said Bob Knight, former mayor of Wichita “He had a tremendous imagination. He was smart. A hard worker. He was, in my estimation, a real visionary.”
Mr. Vliet died Friday at his home — with his wife and daughters by his side — nine years after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, a degenerative disease that attacks the muscles of the body.
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. today at Grace Presbyterian Church, 5002 E. Douglas.
He was born in Wichita on Jan. 26, 1944, and grew up in Midtown, Wichita’s oldest neighborhood. His parents, Elvin and Ann Vliet, ran carpet and blind businesses. By the time he was 12, he was an apprentice carpet and tile layer.
“He grew up with a World War II veteran dad and a working mom who both had a real Kansas work ethic,” Marni Vliet said. “Rich never assumed anything. He grew up knowing he would build a business. His work ethic was so strong that on his first day of junior high, he spent all night before laying carpet in Manhattan and arrived back in time to change into jeans to go to school. He grew up believing that you do what you have to do.”
Mr. Vliet is a 1962 graduate of East High School. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1966 in sociology and anthropology and worked on his masters in economics, all at Wichita State University.
Marni Tasheff and Rich Vliet met and married in 1970. On their first date, he already was talking about opening a restaurant. He’d call it Dr. Redbird’s. They opened the restaurant in April 1971.
“He loved designing space that made people enjoy themselves,” Marni Vliet said. “We did everything on a dime, going to auctions to find church pews for the booths, and putting up stained glass windows. People just swarmed in. We were young and we hawked everything we had – the house and cars – for Rich to have the resources for collateral to buy all the early buildings in Old Town ”
In 1988, Mr. Vliet formed Marketplace Properties with architect Dave Burk. That company went on to become the city’s preferred developer for Old Town, creating numerous retail, residential and commercial developments there.
He was a founding member of the Old Town Association, which helped create Old Town’s block party, chili cook-off and farm and art market.
Mr. Vliet was current president of Redstone Design Development, which bought and restored historic buildings and lofts east of Larkspur to Washington Avenue, and further east to the historic Domestic Laundry building.
Mr. Vliet also was a former chairman of the board for Botanica, The Wichita Gardens.
Steve Clark, developer of Waterfront in east Wichita, said he first met Mr. Vliet in college.
“He was one of those people I always had the greatest admiration for.,” Clark said Sunday. “He was a leader and had a tremendous personality that was so magnetic, he made everyone around him fell good. He never lost that, even in his darkest days. He was a tremendous guy.”
Ten years ago, when they were touring Venice, Marni Vliet felt the muscles in her husband’s arms twitching.
“I mentioned it to Rich because his father had ALS. He said, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’ because he was superstitious. He said it was from carrying suitcases.”
A year later, he was diagnosed with ALS.
“Rich never let the disease stop him,” Marni Vliet said. “It was a very long disease but he met it with dignity and grace from the day he realized he could no longer drive, the day he moved into a wheelchair, or the day he discovered he could no longer live on the second floor of our house. Although he lost the use of his feet, legs and arms, he just stayed with it.”
Mr. Vliet is survived by his wife, Marni (Tasheff) Vliet; daughters Whitney Vliet Ward (Mike) and children, Jackson, Cooper and Georgia, of Wichita, Sasha Vliet (Matthew Lawrence) and child, Sebastian, of Austin, Texas; brother Ed Vliet (Billie) of Wichita; mother-in-law Mary Louise Tasheff of Wichita. Memorials established with Botanica’s Downing Children’s Garden, c/o Botanica, The Wichita Gardens, 701 Amidon, Wichita, KS 67203-3199; ALS Association, Keith Worthington Chapter, North Rock Business Center, 3450 N. Rock Rd., Bldg. 200, Ste. 211, Wichita, KS 67226 and MDA, c/o Intrust Bank, NA, P.O. Box 816, Wichita, KS 67201-0816.
Downing & Lahey Mortuary East are in charge of arrangements. Tributes may be sent to the family via www.dlwichita.com