Millions of dollars invested in downtown, Wichita City Council hears

The exterior of the new Cargill Innovation Center. (July 15, 2011)
The exterior of the new Cargill Innovation Center. (July 15, 2011) The Wichita Eagle

The revitalization of downtown Wichita has been happening at a remarkable pace, according to leaders of the city’s master plan to improve the area.

In 2011, more than $60 million in projects were completed, and another $94 million in projects were initiated. So far this year, $20 million has been invested in downtown.

That information was contained in the 2011 annual report on Project Downtown, a $600 million plan adopted by the city in 2010. The update was released Tuesday at a city council workshop.

Investments are drawing more interest from more developers, and the city’s dynamics are changing as whole new blocks are beginning to shape up, the leaders said.

“We’re well on our way towards accomplishing this objective,” said Scott Knebel, the city’s downtown revitalization director.

Knebel and Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., discussed the marketing and image enhancement of downtown and ways the plan enhances Wichita’s competitiveness to draw businesses.

The plan includes centralized information for companies to learn about Wichita quickly, a new Downtown Design Resource Center to provide information to developers, and a loan consortium of 12 local banks that have committed $8 million in assets. Some of the banks have taken on projects, Fluhr said.

In an interview, Fluhr said the plan has helped developers understand the market opportunities in Wichita. New public- private partnerships have helped make things happen, as have prior investments such as the Intrust Bank Arena and Old Town.

Knebel said there was a pent-up demand from people who wanted to do something but didn’t know where the community was heading.

“Now that they see that picture in their heads and can visualize it, they are coming forward with things they’ve probably been thinking about for some time,” he said.

Completed projects include the new $11.5 million Fairfield Inn & Suites, the $29 million Drury Plaza Hotel Broadview renovation, $2.2 million in riverfront improvements, the $14.7 million Cargill Innovation Center, $1.7 million conversion of the Zelman’s Building, and the $2.3 million Sedgwick County/ Rotary Foundation/Coleman project.

The plan has enabled public and private sectors to fit seamlessly in some parts of the area, Fluhr said.

“The master plan is helping us bring together partnerships that otherwise might not have been done,” he said.

Among the projects initiated in 2011 were $2.3 million in streetscaping improvements along St. Francis, the $20 million LUX mixed-use building, the new $5.4 million Open Door center, the $22 million renovation of the Douglas Avenue Building into an Ambassador Hotel, a $6 million downtown parking garage, the new $23 million central YMCA, and the $16 million renovation of the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception.

New investments this year have been made in the $9 million Kansas Health Foundation expansion, $4 million renovation of the Player Piano building for apartments, the mixed-use redevelopment of the Henry’s building, a new $3.2 million Pixius Corp headquarters, and a mixed-use project in the Renfro Apartments.

Major renovations are under way in buildings that have been sitting vacant for decades, and more than140 residential units are under construction downtown, Fluhr said.

“There’s not a lot of cities where you’re seeing that type of investment,” he said.

Tulsa hotel developer Paul Coury, who leads the Ambassador project, said hotels provide good momentum for an area, pointing out the hotel’s entire block has already taken off with investments in the expansion of the Kansas Health Foundation, the renovation of the Henry’s building, the new city garage and park improvements.

“I think you’ll see that trickle through the other blocks there in very short order,” Coury said.

Wichita is ahead of Tulsa in some ways, he said.

“Our downtown proper has not done as good a job as Wichita has in stimulating new growth there,” he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle