Carrie Rengers

Douglas Design District is at a crossroads, but not everyone is on the same street

If the Douglas Design District were a family, it would be one with the usual spats and drama.

“It’s like any large family,” said Jeff Breault, who owns R&J Discount Liquor near Douglas and Hillside. “There’s going to be a lot of infighting around the dinner table.”

It’s all part of the growing pains of a 12-year-old district that is on the precipice of jumping from a mostly volunteer-led group to potentially becoming the city’s first business improvement district, or BID. A BID would assess a mandatory fee levied by the city in the most prominent part of the district along East Douglas to make improvements to the area.

“There is a potential for so much more if we could … get this in place,” said Renee Duxler, the district’s executive director.

She said what happens in the district is part of Wichita’s larger story of economic development, retaining young people and helping small businesses.

“My hope is people understand the value of what we’re trying to do and at least try it.”

A question of value is the heart of the issue for the district’s approximately 550 businesses, which include everything from retail shops, tattoo parlors, restaurants and bars to manufacturing and service businesses, each with different needs.

“There is no one blueprint for how to promote the district,” said Reuben Saunders, whose namesake gallery is on Douglas just east of Hillside. “It’s not one size fits all.”

The Douglas Design District runs from Washington on the east end of downtown to Glendale, which is just east of Oliver. That’s 2.6 miles. Its north and south boundaries are Second Street and Kellogg.

Years ago, even some of the district’s most outspoken critics initially were on board with formalizing the area to help promote it, but several things happened along the way. There were unpopular potential street changes, questions over improper use of district dues, controversy over public art choices and issues of transparency related to the BID.

The BID would assess fees only to business owners along Douglas — or property owners if there aren’t businesses. Churches and nonprofits would not be assessed.

One of the numerous points of contention is that the committee that set the parameters was comprised of a lot of business owners who aren’t located on Douglas and wouldn’t be assessed the fees, which would range from about $150 to $550 annually.

At one point, a version of the BID included everyone in the district — and it made more sense to have representatives who weren’t on Douglas — but that changed.

“We looked at a lot of options,” said City Council member Cindy Claycomb, who sat on the committee with fellow council member Brandon Johnson.

Duxler said she’s formed a new advisory board comprised of business owners along Douglas.

The city will have a public hearing and vote on a BID plan Jan. 15, and — if approved — a 45-day protest period will follow. If 50 percent of the businesses plus one located within the potential BID object to the plan, it will not move forward. If it is adopted, there would be a protest period every year in which the plan could be rejected.

“Ultimately, this comes down to the businesses,” Claycomb said.

“There’s a strong base of people there that believe that district … can really be something,” she said. “They think it can be better and better every day.”

If they could only agree on how to do it.

Stirring things up

Former Abode Home owner Bill Jackson admitted that he “was the guy who, yeah, stirred things up” with his idea for the Douglas Design District in 2007.

“As I traveled around the country … I kept seeing areas that were real design related, and they were really fun areas,” he said. “They just were exciting places to be.”

He returned to Wichita, drove along East Douglas and started counting dozens of design-related businesses — furniture stores, advertising agencies, fashion businesses.

“You know what?” he said. “I think we almost have a little design district.”

He called a meeting of about 50 of the businesses, and about 35 people showed.

“There was not a negative word to be said. … The area really did have a lot of potential that wasn’t being used.”

Jackson said he never intended for the district to be so large, but a slew of businesses at Douglas and Oliver “were very, very enthusiastic.”

However, he said, “it would have been a whole lot easier to control if it was only a mile long.”

Through the years, Jackson and others in the district say that vandalism has gone down, property values have gone up and interest continues to build. New little pockets of development have popped up, such as the area near Douglas and Hydraulic where Hopping Gnome Brewing, the Donut Whole, Tanya’s Soup Kitchen and the new Lava & Tonic tiki bar located.

“They feel a vibe down there,” Jackson said. “They feel there’s something alive down there.”

Some business owners fear their livelihoods are threatened, though.

Spice Merchant owner Bob Boewe, whose business is at Douglas and Cleveland, just east of Old Town, said he initially liked the idea of businesses banding together to promote the area. Then out-of-state consultants recommended the narrowing of Douglas.

“They always hire experts from God knows where — certainly not Wichita, Kansas,” Boewe said of the city.

That followed an earlier idea to add medians for planters.

“I’m sorry, I don’t need you screwing up my parking in front of my business.”

The median idea was scratched, but the narrowing of Douglas to three lanes likely is still going to happen.

“That doesn’t create business for anybody,” Boewe said. “That frustrates people.”

Monkey Bytes Computer Repair owner Matt Hew also said that “choking the flow to it is not going to help.”

“People are going to eventually avoid it because it’s going to be slow.”

Cart before the horse

Tim Devlin of Devlin Rod and Customs at Douglas and Hydraulic has watched with skepticism and some disappointment as Hydraulic dropped from four lanes to three, and a right turn lane in front of his business was converted to landscaping and sidewalks.

“Well, if all of a sudden I’ve got 30 feet of sidewalk, I’ve got to maintain that,” he said. “I have to maintain enough for somebody to come safely through here.”

Devlin said he’s watched as the district’s leaders have moved forward with ideas such as additional landscaping without an agreement in place to care for it.

“That was part of my issue with what was happening on my corner,” he said. “We’re putting the cart before the horse. Are we doing the same thing with this BID?”

He and other business owners contend that Duxler and the district’s leaders have not been clear about what they would do with the BID money that’s collected.

“We’ve seen a proposal of why a BID is good, but not a plan of what we want to do with your money.”

Devlin said he remembers as a child seeing a thriving downtown business scene.

“Now things are coming back. I don’t want to stand in that way by any stretch of the imagination, but I always need to do what’s right for my business. Until I hear how it’s going to be good for my business, I’m going to sit on the fence on this one.”

At a couple of recent community open houses, Duxler explained that the $50,000 the BID is estimated to raise would go to a new paid position — hers is going away after a grant for it runs out next year — that would continue the online promotion of the district along with some beautification in the area.

With a genial smile on his face that belied the insistence of his questioning, businessman and Douglas property owner Dave Murfin repeatedly asked Duxler — during one of the meetings and after it — to be more specific about how the money would be spent.

With an even bigger smile, Duxler reiterated that the money would go for promotion and beautification.

Boewe said the BID’s supporters are tailoring everything in positivity, which he calls “crafty messaging.”

“People fall into this trap. They don’t understand they’re being led down a pathway to get a consensus on it.”

Hew, the Monkey Bytes owner, said there have been a lot of “flowery words to describe what they’re doing for us,” but nothing concrete.

“You don’t even know what you’re going to do, but you want money from us?”

Duxler said she has not been surprised by the frustrations and skepticism she’s heard, but she points out that it’s the naysayers who often are most vocal.

“Anytime you’re going to put a mandatory assessment on somebody, it’s going to cause feelings about that.”

Nothing nefarious

Part of the issue with the BID is related to some previous issues with transparency on the Douglas Design District board and how it spent dues.

“I’ve certainly heard the concerns about accountability and transparency and who’s been benefiting from money generated,” Duxler said. “The Douglas Design District has absolutely taken this seriously, and I don’t think there was anything insidious happening. … They were just trying to get stuff done and didn’t necessarily think about some of the implications.”

Before she became executive director, Duxler said the board hired out a few services that weren’t done well, so she said some of the volunteers on the board then performed the duties. They took money for doing so without thinking there might be a conflict of interest in voting on how the money would be spent and then taking that money.

“Once it was called to (their) attention, it stopped,” Duxler said. “It was taken very seriously, and part of my role has been having conversations and trying to reassure businesses that that’s no longer happening.”

Duxler said she believes that having a BID and having one paid position responsible for all fiduciary and other responsibilities can eliminate some concerns.

“For me, it does create a better model for people to feel better about how the money is being handled.”

Breault, the liquor store owner who also is an investment adviser, said he doesn’t believe anything nefarious happened.

“I think that they meant well. I just don’t think they understand business,” he said. “Whether anything happened or not, you just can’t have that impression with a nonprofit.”

It’s why he’s not one of the 102 paying members of the district, though Breault was on the BID committee.

“I spent what seems like 10 years on this business improvement committee.”

He said the $50,000 the BID will raise “basically is going to fund about bupkis.”

Breault said Duxler “did a good job of trying to present the whole thing, but she didn’t make everyone understand that this money that’s being raised … isn’t going to go right back on the street.”

“It’s going to fund enough to keep the organization itself, the Douglas Design District.”

Ric Wolford of Douglas Photographic Imaging, which has been at 2300 E. Douglas for more than 42 years, said if anyone could show him the benefit to the assessment, “then I wholeheartedly can see that.”

However, there have been so many changes and so much confusion, he said, “it just hurts your head.”

He also takes issue with the word “assessment.”

“Gosh, just say it: It’s a tax.”

Unlike a tax, which could result in a lien against a business or property if unpaid, the city would have to use traditional collections if someone doesn’t pay an assessment in the BID.

Still, Wolford said it feels just like an unavoidable tax.

“We’re not saying no to the tax, we’re just saying stop monkeying around with words.”

The face of the district

There’s no way to discuss the Douglas Design District without mentioning Janelle King, who has become the face of the area — whether she wants to be or not.

In 2013, King opened her Workroom in the Domestic Laundry building at 1425 E. Douglas, just east of Old Town, because she liked the space and who was around the area. She was 34, and the board invited her to become part of the district in an effort to get a younger person’s perspective.

King said she quickly learned the value of community and how having a bigger vision could help her business.

A year later, she moved to Cleveland near First Street, pointedly choosing to remain in the district.

However, when new streetscape plans were put on hold year after year, King said she realized her business might not be around by the time they were implemented if she didn’t do something to draw attention and get people excited about the area.

That led to Avenue Art Days, a series of murals and other colorful additions to the district.

It also led to criticism, both of the art and King.

As exciting as she found the changes within the district, King said she also found it discouraging when she was personally attacked.

Mostly, though, she got burned out.

“My level of involvement was extreme — and nonsustainable,” King said. “There were weeks if not months it became my full-time job, and my own business became the back burner.”

King said if the BID isn’t approved, that’s what will happen with other volunteers who take the lead in the district, and it will be a cyclical problem.

“We’ve got so much growth and excitement and momentum right now, I’d hate to see us lose that.”

She said the district is now on the map in a way it didn’t used to be. King said she used to tell people she was in the Douglas Design District, and they’d say things such as, “Oh, yeah, I love that area by the clock tower,” thinking she meant Delano.

Now, she said, they know exactly where she means.

“This isn’t just about a handful of businesses in one little area,” King said. “It’s Douglas Avenue. It’s the spine of our entire city.”

She said that’s why the BID is so important to the city in general and the businesses in it.

“It’s an opportunity for our culture really to flourish, and I hope they take it.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

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.