Visioneers see advantages, challenges for Wichita

Wichita starts its downtown revitalization push with some advantages over the Tennessee city that 63 community leaders toured earlier this month.

But it also starts the drive to reshape downtown with some significant challenges.

That's the consensus of six people who joined the three-day Visioneering Wichita mid-October tour of Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I think we saw a clear example of what can be done when there's a community will," said John Allison, the Wichita school superintendent.

"There really was a desire to change downtown and their city. Look at the incredible impact that had on Chattanooga over the last two decades. Wichita has similar potential."

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said he views Wichita an a good city with a "a number of assets downtown that are thriving already."

"What we're striving for with our comprehensive plan is to be great," he said. "We want to define the steps to take this downtown from good to great."

Planners are searching for a way to link Wichita's downtown attractions, including Old Town, Intrust Bank Arena, the riverfront and Exploration Place.

Chattanooga started from nothing to build a riverfront entertainment district.

"Chattanooga has a lot of really great things going for it," said Clay Bastian, president of Fidelity Financial Corp.

"But really, I think we compare very well to them as we are today. Our downtown is quite a bit better than theirs, in terms of attractions."

One goal that emerged from the trip is the creation of "public gathering places," similar to Chattanooga's Miller Plaza, a large, open-air pavilion downtown where workers gather for lunch and entertainment.

"What they do have that I really want to see us get are those public places," Bastian said, "the public spaces around the Tennessee Aquarium and the art museum.

"We didn't get a real good look at it, but the riverfront amphitheater that has the steps all the way down to seat a bunch of people on the river is really cool, too."

There's a need, trip participants said, to mobilize the city's youth and its philanthropy to successfully revitalize downtown.

"One challenge is to make sure we formulate the community's view," Allison said. "I think it's going to be hard without the foundation impetus that will have to be driven by the community and its leadership, and how difficult that may be to maintain over time."

"The nonprofit foundations are going to have to step up and help," said Bob Hanson, president of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission.

"We have the same foundations here as Chattanooga, but it's pretty quiet for the most part. Their nonprofits have been pretty aggressive, stepping up and recognizing the value of partnering with the city. They have to feel like they're a big player in the transformation of the city, and I think Chattanooga helped them feel that way."

Equally important, the trip participants said, is mobilizing Wichita's young professionals.

"The program they had for their young professionals, Create Here, was a ... good idea," said Wichita attorney Dick Honeyman. "There were a lot of things going on under one roof there and the fact they're bringing in young architects, artists, creative types was very impressive.

"Made me think to myself, 'We're all worried about losing our young folks and this is something we need to take advantage of.' "

"That's a critical resource to tap into," Allison said. "One of the critical things I took out of Chattanooga is how they understood that involving your young entrepreneurs, your 20-somethings and 30-somethings, getting them excited and involved is a big part of the success in place in Chattanooga."

Joe Johnson, managing principal for the architecture firm Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey in Wichita, said Chattanooga's teamwork impressed him.

"There weren't any big egos involved," he said. "Nobody looking to take individual credit. That's a great climate for teamwork, which is a lesson we should continue to learn here. Give everyone credit who's involved."