Carrie Rengers

WaterWalk developer contradicts mayor’s ‘700 jobs’ for former Gander Mountain space

At Tuesday night’s contentious City Council meeting, several members of the public voiced concern over a deal for the city’s new ballpark by also expressing disappointment with what the city promised at WaterWalk and what actually happened.

“It’s not fair,” Mayor Jeff Longwell said. “Everybody can armchair quarterback.”

WaterWalk, billed as “Wichita’s next great gathering place,” started as a $130 million public-private partnership that was supposed to include numerous retail and entertainment venues among other things.

Much of that didn’t happen, but Longwell said the project “got rid of a heck of a lot of blight” and has a promising future.

“And right now today, there are negotiations going on to put potentially 700 jobs in the Gander Mountain building. And that would be a big boost to the core area — 700 jobs in the Gander Mountain building.”

Building owner Jack DeBoer says “that’s a new number I hadn’t heard.”

“I know of no deal involving 700 jobs for that building.”

Neither Longwell nor City Manager Robert Layton would discuss the company or the potential 700 jobs after the council meeting. Nor did Longwell return a call for comment on Wednesday.

The Eagle independently confirmed the company, whose owner does not want to comment.

The company does not have 700 employees but hopes to one day. It is already located downtown and is now seriously considering another site away from WaterWalk.

“We thought we had it,” DeBoer says.

That changed at some point.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re looking somewhere else.”

He adds, “I can give you three more deals that we’re working on that we don’t have anything written down either.”

He says he’s done a lot of thinking on what to do with the building that Gander Mountain, now known as Gander Outdoors, left last summer.

“The news would be we’re working on converting it to an office building, but nothing is agreed to.”

DeBoer says anything is still possible, but he’s come to believe that the best use for the building would be to reposition it as an office building with views of the river.

The back of Gander Mountain faced the Arkansas River but had no views.

DeBoer says he wants to “open it up on the back side” for a river presence.

He says he’s told people, “I won’t sell it to you until I see what it’s going to look like and I see what’s going to happen to the riverside.”

DeBoer says he’s had lots of offers for various parts of WaterWalk that weren’t right, such as a bar.

“I’ve summarily turned that stuff down.”

In his comments Tuesday night, Longwell recognized the “tremendous renovation” it will take to repurpose the building and said it “will add certainly to a wide variety of different opportunities.”

“But it’s unfair to armchair quarterback with all of the issues that took place decades ago on WaterWalk. But it’s easy to do, I get that.”

When it comes to the 85,000-square-foot empty former Gander Mountain space, DeBoer is looking to the future.

“I am not going to do anything that I can’t feel good about having left something of value to this city,” he says, “. . . that I can quietly sit down and say, ‘We really did something for Wichita, Kansas, that was important.’”

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Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.