Wichita has much to be proud of

Josh Tripoli and Rebekah Lewis designed a Wichita-themed mural that’s on the west wall of the College Hill Deli and has become one of the most popular places to take a picture.
Josh Tripoli and Rebekah Lewis designed a Wichita-themed mural that’s on the west wall of the College Hill Deli and has become one of the most popular places to take a picture. The Wichita Eagle

Sedgwick County Zoo officials are thrilled that the elephants they acquired from Africa last year are acting like a herd in the wild by doing things together. (video by Jaime Green)

Cleveland native Tony Matteo moved to Wichita about four years ago to work for radio station Alt 107.3, where he hosts the morning show.

Back then, he says, people told him Wichita would never attract big alternative concerts like the Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers or Twenty One Pilots.

But then those acts came to Intrust Bank Arena.

“For us to have that in Wichita, it’s good energy,” Matteo said.

“Some investments were required to make it happen and make downtown a place where you’d want to come and hang out and feel an urban vibe,” he said. “But it’s real. It’s there.”

Ask anyone who has lived in Wichita two decades or more, and they’ll tell you it’s a different, more vibrant place these days.

A gleaming new airport greets travelers. People meander through new outdoor gardens at Botanica and the Wichita Art Museum. An already wide array of restaurants has continued to expand, and has been joined by locally owned coffee shops and craft breweries.

Visitors watch elephants, tigers, penguins and gorillas in new habitats at the zoo. Cyclists pedal along downtown streets, where urban lofts spring from old warehouses and office buildings. Craftsmen turn rolls of raw denim into high-end, custom jeans. Murals decorate alleys and storefronts.

And everywhere you look, Wichita’s official flag – its red and white rays reaching out from that off-center blue sun – whips in the Kansas wind.

“I just think there’s a whole big bubbling up of pride, of people pausing and realizing this is a great place and there’s a lot of fabulous things happening,” said Jan Luth, president of Exploration Place. “You can kind of feel the electricity. It’s happening.”

Alex Pemberton, whose Yellowbrick Street Team led a “tactical urbanism” campaign to scream Wichita pride from the sidewalks, credits the city’s burgeoning spirit to a generation of energetic 20- and 30-somethings.

“There are a lot of millennials who’ve said, ‘We don’t want to go somewhere else.’ … We want to make Wichita a place that people look to as the next Austin or the next Denver,” he said.

“And they’ve put their money where their mouth is and have fought to make it happen, in whatever small way that they do.”

Wichita has much to be proud of. Here are just a few of the major public/private accomplishments over the past decade:

Eisenhower National Airport

“Today we usher in a new era for air travel at Wichita ICT,” Mayor Jeff Longwell said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Wichita’s new Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport in June 2015.

“It just feels like, as a city, we truly are all grown up now.”

The $225 million terminal, which took about a decade from concept to completion, is able to handle 2 million passengers a year, about 500,000 more than the previous Wichita Mid-Continent Airport.

Blast-resistant glass fills the terminal with natural light, passengers flow through security checkpoints more easily, and history exhibit “pods” tell the story of Wichita’s evolution into “The Air Capital.”

“Wichita is transforming itself,” said Gary Plummer, president and CEO of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce. “And people both inside and outside the community are noticing the changes.”

Keeper of the Plains

The Keeper of the Plains sculpture at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers continues to be one of the city’s most popular destinations, thanks to improvements made to the area over the past decade.

Following an eight-year, $20 million restoration and river beautification project completed in 2007, the 44-foot Keeper now stands elevated atop a plaza that describes the Plains Indians way of life. Pedestrians and cyclists can access the area via bow-and-arrow-inspired bridges that span the rivers, and fire pots on boulders at the foot of the Keeper dramatically light the sculpture at scheduled times.

More work to the grounds around the Wichita landmark was completed recently, including stone pavers, ornamental fencing and fire sensors to increase safety during high winds.

Sedgwick County Zoo

Sedgwick County Zoo’s latest attraction, the Reed Family Elephants of the Zambezi River Valley, opened to the public last year and quickly earned its place among the city’s pachyderm-sized draws.

That’s not unusual for the zoo, which has premiered new exhibits regularly over the past two decades: the Pride of the Plains in 2000, the Downing Gorilla Forest in 2004, the Cessna Penguin Cove in 2007 and the Slawson Family Tiger Trek in 2009.

“We’re always looking ahead and wanting to keep our community proud of us,” said zoo spokeswoman Melissa Graham. “New experiences and attractions not only encourage visitors to come out and learn about our animals, but they’re a reason to come to Wichita.”

Intrust Bank Arena

In 2004, Sedgwick County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax that financed the county-owned Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, a 15,000-seat replacement for the aging Kansas Coliseum in Park City.

Since it opened in 2010 with a sold-out concert by country star Brad Paisley, the venue has put on hundreds of events, including top tours such as Taylor Swift, Billy Joel and Elton John, Dave Matthews Band, the Eagles and Garth Brooks. More recently, Intrust Bank Arena has attracted rock-and-roll crowds with the Foo Fighters and Twenty One Pilots, as well as hip-hop shows such as the Power House Jam.

“I think people are really excited to have this in town,” said Matteo, of Alt 107.3. “It’s a great facility, a gorgeous facility, and it’s a great place to see a show.”

Matteo said hosting popular musical acts and the preliminary rounds of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament bode well for the arena’s ability to draw more major shows in the future.

“If we got a full house for the Twenty One Pilots show and people are excited about it and we’re selling that out, other shows like that should want to come and be a part of our scene,” he said. “They’re not going to route around us if they can get 11,000 people in that room.”

Advanced Learning Library

Wichita’s new Advanced Learning Library – the third-largest municipal building project in the past 20 years – will replace the aging Central Library downtown next to Century II Convention Center.

When it opens in 2018, the $33 million library will have triple the technology of the current central branch, faster internet speeds, a cafe, auditorium, genealogy pavilion and a children’s section more than double the size of the current one.

“Libraries are about connecting people – connecting them with information, connecting people with our history, connecting people to our community,” said Mark Chamberlin, a member of the Wichita Public Library Foundation, at the library’s groundbreaking last summer.

“All those connections made with the simple intention of improving the lives of all our citizens.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias