Developer Bryce Baker helping to cook up vibrancy in downtown Wichita

Bryce Baker is VP for corporate real estate for Security National, the Utah-based life insurance company that owns the 125 N. Market building in Wichita. (December 17, 2015)
Bryce Baker is VP for corporate real estate for Security National, the Utah-based life insurance company that owns the 125 N. Market building in Wichita. (December 17, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

Bryce Baker believes in downtown Wichita.

Of course, it’s in his interest to believe in the future of the city’s core, but anyone who spends time with the Utah developer is likely to pick up on his fondness for Wichita.

“The market is doing well — I like what’s going on in Wichita,” Baker said. “There’s a good energy.

“In a few years, I think we’re going to see a lot more people living downtown, which creates a vibrancy in itself.”

The son of an Idaho rancher, Baker, 36, didn’t think about going into real estate as a profession until he was already in college at Brigham Young University. He started out developing properties in Las Vegas after college before eventually getting a job as vice president for corporate real estate for Security National Life Insurance Co.’s real estate subsidiary.

For the past few years, Baker has been busy as the lead developer on Security Life’s project at the 19-story 125 N. Market building downtown. The office building, which now has 26 tenants, was taken over by the Utah-based insurance company after the real estate development tandem of Michael Elzufon and David Lundberg — known around town as the “Minnesota Guys” — found themselves in foreclosure proceedings a few years ago.

Baker, who makes his home in the Salt Lake City area, said he traveled to Wichita on average every two weeks last year to help oversee the building’s remodeling project. He also is a member of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. board and said he tries to be as active as he can with regard to city planning meetings and functions.

“Bryce travels a lot, so, within our board, his perspectives on different markets have been very dynamic,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “Bryce firmly believes that Wichita is a great place to invest in, and I’ve connected with people around the country based on conversations Bryce has had with them.

“Bryce understands the opportunities that are here.”

A changed career path

Originally, Baker pursued a legal career, but quickly decided it wasn’t for him after taking some law classes in college. He joked that his wife “fell victim to false advertising” because she thought she was signing up to be with a corporate lawyer.

“While I was in college, my wife’s family was building a cabin, so I went to help out every weekend,” Baker said. “I liked that aspect of building something, but I knew I didn’t want to actually do the building part as a career. Real estate is an investment that you see, and I guess I latched onto that aspect of it.

“It feels like your work pays off in real estate. You can see how a space can help a company or client do what they do, and that’s exciting to me.”

Jason Overbaugh, vice president of Security National’s financial arm and the man who hired Baker several years ago, said the company was so impressed by his work on a Salt Lake City development project, it put Baker in charge of all of its real estate dealings.

“He understands that, with any project we do in any community, you have to be involved in that community,” Overbaugh said. “In Wichita particularly, it’s been so key to get different factions and people to buy into our vision for the 125 N. Market building, which had a bad reputation when we took it over because of some broken promises.

“It was a bad situation, and Bryce dug in to change that perception.”

Baker is the first to admit the building still has a long way to go, but he said he’s proud that the project has generally been considered successful to date. A number of existing tenants recently signed new lease agreements while other businesses have decided to set up shop inside 125 N. Market.

Moving in the right direction

In November, JBS USA Pork moved the former Cargill pork operations group in Wichita to the building, bringing about 90 employees to a revamped space on the 13th floor.

Baker has consistently said that Security Life’s plans are for the building to feature “Class A” downtown office space.

“We were a lender for the Minnesota Guys,” Baker said. “When it became apparent that our borrowers were having some problems, we moved to get the building.

“We knew what the market was and we determined that the investment was a safe one. I started flying out in September 2012, and our goal was to bring the building up to standard.”

To date, Overbaugh said Security National has put about $4 million into the renovation of the building, which it officially took over during the summer of 2013.

“Operationally, there were some things that had been neglected, and we went to work to take care of that,” Baker said. “We’ve re-roofed the building, we did the chilling system, the elevators, the common areas, the parking garage.

“The building works now. It’s a quality building that competes with other Class A’s in the market.”

Because Security Life is technically an insurance company, there have been questions about the company’s intentions for 125 N. Market. Baker, however, said the building is viewed as a long-term investment — in a way, a bet on the future of downtown Wichita.

“Part of having a life insurance company own the building is that it takes a long view with all of its investments,” Baker said. “Real estate for Security National is a long-term hold.

“Our ultimate goal is to have a building that is full and income-producing. I could see us possibly putting some financing of our own on the building eventually. If someone wants to offer us fair market value for it, you never know, but we don’t need to do that. We don’t do real estate flip.”

Downtown vision

Joseph Tigert, managing partner for the New York Life Insurance offices inside 125 N. Market, said the building has been improved greatly since Baker showed up in Wichita.

“We moved in six years ago, and many promises were made,” Tigert said. “It wasn’t until (Security National Life) and Bryce Baker took over that those promises were finally made (good).

“Bryce has worked tirelessly and spent millions to upgrade the building, and he is not slowing down. He continues to improve the building and provide superior service to us and the rest of the tenants.”

Baker said he also has tried to capitalize on a recent trend around the country that has employers thinking differently about office space. Some companies, Baker said, are thinking about work spaces more as recruiting tools, as opposed to setting up rows of cubicles and cookie-cutter offices.

“The trend is using real estate to recruit and retain the best talent,” Baker said. “In markets we see that are growing, they use real estate as a tool to that end.

“You’ll see a new, gorgeous space and, right across the street, a competitor will do the same thing. They recognize that in many markets, where the labor force for a specific skill might be tight, they have to get the right people any way they can.

“If a potential employee shows up and your space is 20 years old and doesn’t have natural light or lend itself to the collaborative nature of how people do business today, you won’t attract that employee. It’s either that, or the employee moves along soon after being hired.”

While Baker said downtown Wichita is still a work in progress, he also envisions a bright future for the city’s core.

“Looking at something like the Innovation Campus at Wichita State, I think there will be a connect there with downtown,” Baker said. “I think downtown could be a breeding ground for new companies.

“On the whole, I think we’ll see fewer and fewer buildings that are vacant in the coming years as they are refurbished or torn down. I think we’ll see all of that in the next five years.”

Bryan Horwath: 316-269-6708, @bryan_horwath

The Bryce Baker file

Home: Salt Lake City

Family: Wife, Angie; four children

Favorite Wichita barbecue: Bite Me BBQ or B&C Barbeque

Hobbies: Backpacking, golf, riding ATVs