Carrie Rengers

If Wichita dreamed big, what would downtown along the river look like?

It’s home to the Keeper of the Plains, Exploration Place, parks, paths and – finally – new residential development.

Yet few would argue that Wichita has fully capitalized on the potential of the Arkansas River.

So The Eagle asked a variety of Wichitans to dream big.

If money and politics weren’t obstacles, how would you redevelop the river corridor through downtown, particularly around the much-discussed Century II area?

Several themes emerged, but all of them centered around making the river a gathering spot for the entire community and beyond.

So what would be the draws?

“We’re known as the Air Capital of the World,” says developer Gary Oborny, who is chairman and CEO of Occidental Management. “A world-class museum that celebrates our aviation history would be tremendous.”

He and others who seconded the idea say the river is the only place for it, and it could be an anchor for the area and could become a worldwide attraction.

City Council member Bryan Frye sees an opportunity with Wichita’s Chance Rides.

“Could there be something like a Ferris wheel … utilizing one of Wichita’s homegrown companies to have one of their attractions right there on the river?”

When it comes to attractions on the water, Bill Gardner of Gardner Design has endless inspiration from what succeeds elsewhere, such as a giant steampunk elephant from a French theme park. He wonders about something similar with a giant buffalo along the waterfront.

“You can’t help but want to run up to it and touch it and see it,” he said. “There’s something about scale that’s just fascinating to people.”

He also thinks fire features on the water along with digital projections, such as a waterfall that flows down the face of a bridge, can lure people.

“It’s kind of like fathoming up magic from the waters.”

The first issue in redevelopment is addressing the city’s aging and only somewhat adequate facilities along the river, says Mary Beth Jarvis, president and CEO of Wichita Festivals.

“Let’s get from aging and somewhat adequate to truly distinct and pride- worthy and a point of competitive advantage,” she says. “Good enough is just not good enough.”

Jarvis envisions a trifecta: a multifunctional sports complex that can have concerts and events, too; a dynamic convention center, and a performing arts complex.

“If you get those three things, you’re going to get private development that complements it.”

Sonia Greteman of Greteman Group also wants to see a grand, new performing arts center and then wants Century II repurposed to keep the historical value of the city’s skyline. She’d also like to turn the existing library into a 21C Museum Hotel, which is known for its art.

“It’s such a cool structure,” she says of the library. “I feel like we’ve lost a few too many of our cool buildings. If we had to bulldoze anything, it would be Gander Mountain.”

Complaints about Gander Mountain, part of WaterWalk, is a common refrain from people who are disappointed with how little the development utilizes the river on which it sits.

“We could totally activate the river,” says Greteman, who wants to see boats up and down it, including lighted ones at night.

“We need a fully functional boat house.”

Artist-activist Ann Garvey agrees that Wichita needs “an actual boathouse, not a pretend boathouse.”

She says accessibility “instead of once every mile or so” is key to the river’s redevelopment.

Garvey says Wichita needs to take a hard look at some of the “shabby, soulless structures” – including some newer construction – along the river.

“It makes me think of Soviet Russia, where I’ve spent a lot of time.”

“Wichita has a heritage of incorporating art in its public spaces, so I’d love to see further river area (development) include a major public art component,” says Tammy Allen, vice president of marketing and communications at Allen, Gibbs & Houlik.

She says that could be something like a sculpture park.

Allen says because the city already has a “Museums on the River” area, “… how about making a stronger and more visible connection between all of them?”

She suggests perhaps a specially designated path – whether it’s walking or paddling or for boat docking – and a membership or fee that’s good for all the museums.

“The thing I’d love to see is levels of landscaping,” says residential real estate agent Cindy Carnahan, who recently led the effort to place more than 100 planters along Douglas.

She wants terraced plantings, manicured beds and sculptures made of boxwoods along the river with lots of levels of interest, including some scenic overlooks.

Kansas African American Museum executive director Mark McCormick would like to move the museum to the river. It’s currently in the former Calvary Baptist Church.

“They used to do baptisms in the river,” he says. “It’s a pretty amazing tie.”

McCormick also says while nothing could replace the Joyland Amusement Park he grew up with, he’d like to see an homage to it on the river.

“That would absolutely thrill me.”

Years ago, businessman Max Cole returned to Wichita from Las Vegas with a “pretty cool deal” to put a casino, hotel and apartments on the river, but gambling was voted down.

He still says there needs to be a “big deal” to attract people.

“If you really wanted to have something cookin’, it would have to be a big catalyst.”

A number of people are still hoping for a casino on the water – and likely will have to continue to do so.

Some people want to close McLean along the river, or at least its east lanes, to develop the area.

“You could put retail and restaurants along the river … so you could make that just one big walking urban area,” says businessman Bill Ramsey, who used to be on the planning commission.

He says there needs to be kayak rentals and docks where people could visit restaurants with patios overlooking the river.

Ramsey says he also thinks the Old Town area and the shops and restaurants it offers are too far from the river.

“It would be amazing if we could condense all that along the river.”

Developer Michael Ramsey, no relation to Bill Ramsey, says he’d scrap the new library on the river if it “didn’t hurt anybody’s feelings” and focus on housing instead.

Ramsey has redeveloped several downtown buildings for apartments, but it’s mid-rise condominiums with ground-floor retail he’d want on the river along with some condo pods centered around courtyards that open to the water.

“I would love to see something like Pike Place Market in Seattle,” says Jane Deterding, chairman at Citizens Bank of Kansas. “Little shops and restaurants, fresh food. Open air to some extent. Essentially expanding the Old Town center area to the riverfront.”

Carol Skaff, president of Cohlmia Marketing, had the same thought.

“It would be really fun to have a really fantastic, well-developed destination farmers market like all the big cities have,” she says. “And it would solve the problem (of) having no grocery store downtown.”

Skaff envisions local products and art in addition to food.

“And then some farm-to-table restaurants and maybe a venue for street performers.”

Deterding also wants an outdoor concert venue – a common theme among many Wichitans – and shaded seating areas for picnics.

“I like the idea … of a never-ending tailgate party,” she says. “Throw in a dog park for good measure.”

Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or Follow her on Twitter: @CarrieRengers.

All images are courtesy of Creative Commons license. Airplane museum: river photo by Andrea Allen; airplane photo by Robert Underwood; building photo by FaceMePLS. Buffalo in water: river photo by Wiki Commons. Ferris wheel: river photo by Lane Pearman; Ferris wheel photo by Paul VanDerWerf. Fire on water: river photo by Wichita Regional Chamber; fire photos by Dominic Lockyear.