Developer lays out his vision for downtown Arkansas River project

George Laham has a vision for his River Vista apartment complex at First and McLean, what he calls a “Bradley Fair on the River.”

Residences, a shop renting boats and bikes, lifestyle-oriented shops, restaurants and office space are the foundation of Laham’s complex along the Arkansas River – as are the music, art and special events that make his east-side center, Bradley Fair on North Rock Road, a go-to spot for entertainment.

“When you boil it down, our goal is to activate the river,” said Laham, a partner in the multimillion-dollar River Vista project with Old Town developer Dave Burk, Key Constructon president Dave Wells and Wichita theater developer Bill Warren. Ground will be broken next spring for the first phase, a $22 million 154-unit apartment complex.

Activating the river – and turning River Vista into a destination for residents, shoppers and regional visitors – is a key plank of the group’s request for sales tax and revenue bond funding, or STAR bonds. To earn the STAR designation from the Kansas Department of Commerce, major tourism, entertainment and destination areas must have at least $50 million in capital investment and $50 million in annual sales, and meet criteria for drawing visitors.

The apartment complex is part of a larger plan, including an office and retail center, designed to appeal to renters, shoppers and entertainment consumers from young professionals to retirees.

It’s the biggest downtown residential project since the city enacted Project Downtown, the master plan for downtown redevelopment, in December 2010.

“When people see people, that’s energy,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “No question that rooftops are a huge driver for downtown and for the river corridor in so many ways. It can be a catalyst for life after 5.”

Laham said the boat and bike rental shop “is the seed, like the beginning of Bradley Fair in 1990. We have to start somewhere, and Boats and Bikes is going to be a great little place where you can rent and take them out, and then go up to our retail place and have lunch, do some shopping.”

Laham says the River Vista complex will have a signature series of events to draw people in – from Wichita, from western Kansas, from northern Oklahoma.

“What do we have at Bradley Fair? There’s Autumn and Art, and that’s 15,000 people. There’s the summer concert series, and that’s 27,000 people every year. Carriage rides, five weekends before the holidays, 6,000 people. Opera on the Lake,” he said.

“Do we need to do all those things? Not with the stores. But this is our town and our town supports us.”

The vision for River Vista isn’t complete. Laham’s group plans to roll out the Bradley-Fair-on-the-river idea in November to focus groups and the public, on a date to be announced soon. Those groups will have input on the interior and exterior of the apartments, along with the shopping and office elements of the facility.

Fluhr said Laham has a built-in stage for his entertainment programming – the adjacent Delano Park once earmarked for an oil drilling site downtown.

“The park isn’t part of his project, but it essentially will be,” he said. “People will think of it as the front door to that area.

Laham won’t speculate on which businesses might join River Vista since the apartments aren’t open and the focus groups aren’t at work. “There will be the kind of national and local shops and restaurants that people will want to come visit,” he said.

City Council members approved a development plan for River Vista on Tuesday and $2.5 million in tax increment financing. The council’s action wraps up more than six months of bidding, and a political skirmish between the Laham group and losing bidder Steve Clark’s team as they competed for the riverfront project.

Laham’s group bought the land from City Hall for $100,000, a half-million less than the $600,000 appraisal.

The development group also seeks $2.5 million in sales tax and revenue bonds for riverbank improvements.

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