Hey, Wichita, Jack DeBoer could use your help.
Gander Mountain may be leaving his WaterWalk development – the investor buying the company out of bankruptcy hasn’t decided a final list of sites he’s keeping open – and DeBoer isn’t sure what to put there.
“I’d love to read your article about what to do with it when they move out.”
Lucky for DeBoer, no one seems to be short on opinions.
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“It needs to be something more community than a retail outlet, quite frankly,” says Danny Yunker, a district sales manger with Farmer Brothers. “More along the line of some sort of exciting event center.”
It could be a popular restaurant or entertainment center such as Dave & Buster’s, says Melissa Silver, director of sales at Staybridge Suites.
“The focus is making Wichita a destination city, but people aren’t going to go down to the river area because it’s got a water fountain, and it’s pretty, and it has brick sidewalks and sporadic shopping throughout the whole area,” Silver says. “There’s got to be an anchor. … A reason to go.”
City Council member Bryan Frye agrees.
“It needs to be something that creates a lot of excitement and entertainment value and makes better use of the river,” he says. “Because right now it’s the back of a building.”
The hunting and outdoor store’s future at WaterWalk is unclear. Marcus Lemonis of Camping World purchased the chain and plans to keep at least 70 of the stores open. Early lists of stores that will remain open do not include Wichita.
“They’re out trying to beat people up on their leases,” DeBoer says of company representatives, who have called him to negotiate a new long-term lease.
DeBoer says there’s not been much progress.
“They’ve got their hands full.”
DeBoer is potentially open to a new lease.
“Well, I don’t want an empty building.”
At the same time, he says, “I’m frankly not worried if Gander Mountain decides to go away.”
DeBoer says he sees the retailer’s possible departure as an opportunity.
“It’s such a great building, and it’s such a great piece of land, and things are happening downtown, and I’m just patiently looking at what my options are,” DeBoer says. “I just want to be part of something. I just want that land to be something great for downtown.”
DeBoer was an original WaterWalk partner, though not a particularly involved one, when the development almost landed Bass Pro Shop about 14 years ago.
The trajectory of the development changed with Gander Mountain. WaterWalk did not become a retail or entertainment hub.
Its residential condos are leased and its commercial spaces are occupied, but about five acres remain undeveloped there.
“I’ve had several opportunities to … build small things there, and I’ve turned them down,” says DeBoer, who bought out his partners a few years ago.
“I’ve says, ‘You know, I don’t know what to do with the whole thing, and so be patient,’ ” he says.
While Gander Mountain wasn’t the hoped-for catalyst for more development at WaterWalk or a big incentive for people to flock downtown, it has its supporters.
“They met everything on the checklist,” says Patrick Ahern, a commercial broker with NAI Martens.
He says Gander Mountain attracts people from communities outside of Wichita, and it’s close to Intrust Bank Arena, so it can combine for entertainment.
“What’s a better time than buying a new shotgun and going and checking out Dierks Bentley?”
When news broke initially that Gander Mountain was definitely leaving – before Lemonis says that wasn’t necessarily true – Council member Frye did a Facebook post asking what should replace the store.
“Gander Mountain,” came the first response. “Wish they’d stay.”
Ahern says it would be fine if the store did remain.
“If they were to stay, it would be great if they engaged the river.”
Instead of small boats simply sitting in front of the store, Ahern says it would be great if they could be taken out back to the Arkansas River for rides. Or if customers could learn fly fishing or test poles in the river.
Frye says he hopes the new investor might be open to doing something more like that.
“I see the site having much more potential than what it is now.”
Frye says he couldn’t believe how many people responded to his Facebook post. There were a quick 80 comments, including:
▪ Music Theatre Wichita producing artistic director Wayne Bryan suggested a performing arts center overlooking the river.
▪ Promoter Adam Hartke wondered about an outdoor concert venue.
▪ Alex Pemberton of Yellowbrick Street Team says he wants “something that will make Wichita unique!”
▪ Occidental Management president Chad Stafford suggested a restaurant with a patio on the river along with retail facing it, too, and a high-rise apartment on top.
“Looking forward to the Occidental proposal!!” Frye responded.
Lots of people want to see more done with the river, especially for dining. Some want to give Bass Pro another shot.
Others suggested indoor soccer, Trader Joe’s, IKEA, Joe’s Crab Shack, a casino, an aquarium and, of course – because no list of what Wichitans want is complete without it – a Cheesecake Factory.
“I was shocked at the comments,” Frye says.
“People obviously feel very strongly about what should be downtown.”