Never-ending question for downtown Wichita: When is a grocery store coming?

2015: Can a grocery store work in downtown Wichita?

Wichita Downtown Development Corp. President Jeff Fluhr talks about downtown growth and grocery store possibilities (Aug. 13, 2015)
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Wichita Downtown Development Corp. President Jeff Fluhr talks about downtown growth and grocery store possibilities (Aug. 13, 2015)

With the burgeoning residential area that is downtown Wichita, there seems to be one amenity in particular that is lacking.

As people have flocked to live downtown – part of an overall national trend in recent years – the lack of a nearby grocery store seems to be a topic of discussion that isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.

“It’s probably the biggest drawback of living downtown,” said Usef Hassouneh, who was walking his rottweiler, Leo, in Old Town this week. “I’ve lived downtown for three years, and people talk about it a lot. …

“It seems like the number of people living here has to get to a certain level, but what is that number?”

Jelisa Culver, who lives in Old Town, said she knows of someone who decided not to live downtown based solely on the fact that the nearest full-service grocery store, the Dillons at 3020 E. Douglas, is more than a mile from Old Town.

“It’s talked about a lot,” Culver said. “Downtown Wichita has changed a lot just in the last five or six years. There are a lot of young professionals living here now – it’s a lot better down here now.

“I would say the lack of a grocery store and the lack of a liquor store, at least one that I would feel safe going in, downtown are the two biggest things we don’t have.”

Downtown migration

In a 2014 report, the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. estimated that there are nearly 1,900 people living downtown. Many of the folks living there are young and single and have some money to spend, making on average about $46,000 annually, according to the corporation’s findings.

From loft-style dwellings – like the spaces found at the Lux, the Finn, Player Piano and Commerce Street lofts – to unique urban complexes – like Innes Station, Flats 324 and Eaton Place – the downtown housing market has expanded its offerings in recent years, with more to come.

More than 260 new units came online downtown last year alone, with more than 500 now under construction or in the planning stages, according to the corporation’s report.

With a host of newer downtown residents already in place and developers obviously banking on the appearance of more in the coming years, it would seem to make enough business sense for someone to open a grocery store in the area. City of Wichita principal planner Scott Knebel, however, said that’s not necessarily the case.

“There are a number of people who think that downtown needs grocery to be successful, but I don’t completely agree with that line of thinking,” Knebel said.

“The grocery business is an interesting one. Even into the early 1990s, there were the small mom and pop grocery stores around, but most are now bigger stores that are owned by large corporations. …

“Would downtown support a 30,000- or 40,000-square-foot grocery storefront? Downtown is certainly growing, but I think the grocery store that would be successful would be more of a niche business that doesn’t only sell food.”

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. and head of the Greater Wichita Partnership, said about 58 percent of downtown residents have moved there since 2010.

But are there enough folks coming to attract a grocery store? Fluhr said grocery store operations usually look for an epicenter of around 5,000 people for their market base.

“We’re well on our way,” Fluhr said. “We’re starting to see the services follow the people, and services are starting to migrate west on Douglas from Old Town now.

“We could see a developer decide that they want that (grocery) project as part of the project that they’re doing, but I think it would be more of an urban market that could also maybe have a deli component.”

Numbers game

Jon McCormick, president of the Retail Grocers Association of Greater Kansas City, said he’s not terribly familiar with the market situation in downtown Wichita, but added that it’s all a numbers game.

“It’s a little bit of an art with some science mixed in,” McCormick said. “Even your smaller neighborhood Wal-Mart locations are about 40,000 square feet. Would an outfit like Trader Joe’s come to downtown Wichita? It’s all about the numbers and if they feel they would make money.”

McCormick added that the trend following the big box grocery store movement has been for smaller neighborhood-type stores, which could ultimately bode well for downtown Wichita.

“There have been a lot more small stores popping up in the past 20 years to fill in the market gaps that were created by the building of the supercenter-type locations,” McCormick said. “Smaller stores like Sprouts and Trader Joe’s have been filling in that void in the marketplace.”

Dillons spokeswoman Sheila Lowrie said the chain has no current plans to add to its list of 15 Wichita-area store locations; a Wal-Mart spokeswoman also said the retail chain has no plans to expand in downtown Wichita. A message left for the Trader Joe’s media department was not returned.

‘Better off’ with grocery

While Knebel said he thinks people will continue to occupy the expanding list of downtown residential locations whether or not the area has a grocery store, he added that he wouldn’t be surprised if a food store eventually opens downtown.

“According to the Project Downtown master plan, the downtown market could absorb another 1,750 units by 2020,” Knebel said. “The 20-year comprehensive plan outlook states that it could absorb up to another 5,500 units, so more people are expected downtown.

“I suspect that a specialty-type food retailer will eventually pop up downtown, but my opinion is that the growth of downtown doesn’t depend on it. People can still get a gallon of milk and loaf of bread at one of the convenience stores located near downtown, and most of the people living there have access to an automobile and can drive to a larger grocery store. …

“There’s no question that downtown would be better off with a grocery store, but that’s not how market economics work.”

Reach Bryan Horwath at 316-269-6708 or Follow him on Twitter: @bryan_horwath.

Downtown Wichita

Population: 1,872

Living units: 1,747

Additional units area could absorb by 2020: 1,750

Most common downtowner: Young, single professional

Average income: $45,846

Sources: Downtown Wichita Development Corp., city of Wichita