A test for DeBoer's 'can do' spirit

Jack DeBoer's license plate says "Can Do."

That's downtown Wichita's latest question: Can one of the city's legendary entrepreneurs lure retail and entertainment business to his struggling WaterWalk development?

DeBoer, an architect in 1991 of an elaborate vision to remake downtown, emerged this week as the new leader of WaterWalk, a development on the east bank of the river that was supposed to combine residential, retail, office and entertainment venues.

City officials said this week they intend to support DeBoer, but won't contribute any more than the $41 million in infrastructure funded by a tax increment financing district there.

DeBoer remained out of town this week and unavailable for comment. On Tuesday night, he announced that he had bought controlling interest in WaterWalk from partners Dave Burk, a downtown developer, and Dave Wells, president of Key Construction.

DeBoer's "can do" spirit will be tested, local developers and officials say, by four critical development years lost to political infighting at City Hall, development mistakes made early in WaterWalk's seven-year life, and the frozen commercial credit market.

"If anyone can pull that off, Jack DeBoer can," said Wichita developer Johnny Stevens, one of the founders of the competing Waterfront on the east side."... It's going to be difficult.... It's Jack's reputation on the line, and he has the money, the contacts and the ability to make that development work."

Former Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans said he thinks DeBoer's biggest challenge is restoring some degree of public faith in the project.

Some think Mayans' decision in 2003 to cut more than $3 million in WaterWalk funding earmarked for Bass Pro Shops was the beginning of the development's struggles.

"I'm not sure why he wasn't more involved before," Mayans said, "but I think the only reason DeBoer's into this now is because he's frustrated with the delays and what he sees as a negative — the media talking about this project."

Others are skeptical that anyone can mold WaterWalk into a successful entertainment district after seven largely development-less years.

"I think what you could see work down there is more of a civic district," Wichita developer George Laham said.

"Put the YMCA down there. Give them the river for their programming. Bring the African-American Museum in."

DeBoer takes over WaterWalk at a key time in its history. Wichita Downtown Development Corp. president Jeff Fluhr said this week its success is integral to plans to revitalize downtown.

"One of the things we want to develop is experiences along the riverfront," Fluhr said. "WaterWalk... is certainly one of the anchors along our riverfront, giving us a diversity of things for people to experience.

"And when you look at the overall fabric of downtown, it's an anchor we'll link to the Intrust Bank Arena, the Douglas Avenue corridor and Old Town — the major epicenters of activity. We consider WaterWalk very important to downtown's future."

But City Manager Bob Layton thinks downtown can prosper without WaterWalk.

"It's important, but it's not make or break to the success of downtown revitalization, in my mind, because there are so many other opportunities out there," Layton said.

"I think the real linchpin to downtown revitalization is that property between Old Town and the arena, the Union Station area. There are other sites that are just as important."

WaterWalk's troubles

The original WaterWalk plan, which initially included $33 million in city financing, immediately found trouble when Mayans became mayor in 2003.

The stories diverge here: Mayans and his supporters say he slashed more than $3 million from the project budget because Wichita taxpayers were overexposed in a deal that included relatively little cash from the developers.

"Anyone who read the contract that was already written when I came in as mayor can see that the public sector was overextended in that," Mayans said.

"And that the commitments from the developers were in generalities and promises, and that the recourse the public sector was getting in return for its millions was nonexistent."

Mayans' critics, including his predecessor Bob Knight, say the budget cut severely compromised the development's chance to succeed by driving away Bass Pro Shops, along with the retailers that follow the national outdoors chain.

"The plan wasn't watered down that much financially," Knight said. "It's just that they withdrew the real pivot points of the project. The canal, for one.

"And we had Bass Pro stating to me they were coming to Wichita. Not the clerk, mind you, but Johnny Morris, the chairman."

The critics also accuse Mayans of helping blow up a deal for the WaterWalk office building, driving downtown anchors Commerce Bank and the Foulston & Siefkin law firm to the competing east Wichita Waterfront development.

The city's response was $7 million to lure Gander Mountain to the east bank, a move that Stevens called one of two "fundamental mistakes" locating attractions that continue to handicap WaterWalk.

Stevens said Gander Mountain would have been better served on Main Street, with the condos on the riverbank.

"Putting Gander on the water and then following it up by putting the condos on the street (South Main) are huge, monumental development mistakes," Stevens said. "It's backwards.

"The one thing that always happens in a development is when you make a site development error up front, it's awful hard to change it."

Then, the debate over locating Intrust Bank Arena began, slowing the progress of infrastructure development around the WaterWalk site.

When the infrastructure issue was resolved, public criticism of the inactivity at the site mounted and tenants became harder to find.

The key early tenant was Saddle Ranch Chop House, a Western-themed restaurant that announced in April that it would not build in WaterWalk.

So developers brought in consultant John Elkington, the Tennessee developer of Beale Street in Memphis.

Elkington helped WaterWalk land several leases, including a daiquiri bar and a comedy club, but those leases evaporated — along with other rumored deals — when the economy collapsed.

WaterWalk history

The genesis of WaterWalk dates to 1991, when DeBoer became one of the front men for an ambitious $375 million redevelopment of downtown and the east bank.

Some of DeBoer's original vision has been accomplished: There's a refurbished Keeper of the Plains exhibit and Exploration Place is the children's and science museum the plan envisioned.

Intrust Bank Arena, which DeBoer envisioned on the riverfront, will open in January near Old Town.

Almost immediately after DeBoer floated his 1991 plan, it plunged into political controversy at City Hall.

According to Eagle archives, two candidates and a council member who supported DeBoer's plan were defeated.

The first big boost to DeBoer's plan came in the spring of 1995, when the City Council voted unanimously to build a $30 million, 300-room Hyatt Regency convention center just south of Century II.

WaterWalk wasn't born until 2002, first as RiverWalk LLC, a partnership between DeBoer, Burk, Greg Kossover, chief financial officer of DeBoer's Consolidated Holdings, and Wells.

The original two-phase east bank plan included shops, apartments and offices west of Main Street between the Hyatt and Kellogg.

Included was a 20-foot-wide waterway from the Wichita Boathouse east through the development.

There would be high-end apartments and townhomes, and a 10- to 15-story office building. A new midprice hotel was planned south of Kellogg.

WaterWalk's future

Layton was clear earlier this week: No more city money is available for WaterWalk.

And DeBoer's new manager, Doug Rupe, signaled no change in strategy when he told The Eagle this week he will revisit some of the failed lease agreements when the economy improves.

Others in Wichita's commercial sector are more explicit: They expect DeBoer to take one more shot at landing the retailers and restaurants WaterWalk has always targeted.

If that fails, DeBoer may give the city the keys to WaterWalk, and the $41 million tab for a tax increment financing district that didn't generate enough revenue to pay itself off.

Layton said he's not worried about WaterWalk failing.

"I think some momentum has been built by the previous group, and with Jack's reputation, he has the ability to deliver," Layton said.

Knight thinks DeBoer can turn WaterWalk around. But he admitted that the partisan wrangling over downtown redevelopment is a major obstacle.

"What's the city got in it now? $40 million? That's not a problem for the taxpayers if they're seeing a return on the investment, a Bass Pro pulling in a million and a half people a year," Knight said.

"Can it recover? Sure. But we've lost a lot of time, and cities are very competitive."

Knight fears losing the project — and much of downtown redevelopment — to the intense debate over public/private investment partnerships.

"You cannot afford to lose three or four years playing partisan politics," he said.

"This (downtown redevelopment) shouldn't be partisan warfare."