Arkansas River is connecting theme in much of Wichita development

The pace of changes and improvements in downtown Wichita is staggering, even to Jeff Fluhr.

“The city that we’re in today is not the city we were in five years ago,” said Fluhr, president of Greater Wichita Partnership and Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “In some regards, not even two years ago. The things that are happening are truly remarkable.”

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Fluhr is seeing ideas on a drawing board when he arrived in 2008 develop into full-fledged realities in Wichita, from a new downtown library to improvements at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium to a state-of-the-art apartment complex to a renewed interest in the riverfront.

The groundwork, Fluhr said, had begun to be laid before he arrived from Baton Rouge, La., including a revitalization of Old Town and the construction of Intrust Bank Arena, which opened in 2010.

“There were a lot of good things already in place,” he said.

Although Fluhr and Jason Gregory, executive vice president of Wichita Downtown Development, commend the work done at Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus, they say a common theme in the city’s upswing in activity is based on its relationship to the Arkansas River.

“We don’t have a mountain range, but we do have a river that runs through our city,” Gregory said. “There are a lot of cities that would love to have the access that we have.”

“There’s only so many riverfront cities. There’s a finite list,” Fluhr said. “And there are also cities that have created their own riverfront because of the draw of it — i.e., Oklahoma City and San Antonio. There’s a lot of draw, if you will, to a body of water.”

Amy Liebau is feeling the draw of the river as well. She’s president of River Vista apartments, a $35 million project along First and McLean streets that will add 202 apartments — all with a view of the Arkansas River — to the downtown area when it opens next spring.

“Driving by there now, you can start to get a feel of how the project is going to change the landscape of the river,” she said of the project created by developer George Laham.

A retaining wall and a fountain on the northwest corner of the project have been installed.

“You can already see how much room we’re going to have between the project and the river, and that will be used for bike paths and landscaping,” she said. “You really get a feel for how it’s going to change the landscape of the river.”

With the stadium, Exploration Place, Century II and the Hyatt Hotel and Drury Inn along the river, Liebau said the apartments will be a perfect fit.

“We just feel like trying to connect all that will help the city of Wichita activate the river and make it a focal point of tourism,” she said.

Each unit will have a view of the river, Liebau said. A place for River Vista residents and the public to rent bikes and paddleboats will be part of the complex, as well as storage for Wichita State University’s rowing team to keep its boats.

“I think we’ve made great strides in our downtown in creating quality residential units, and entertainment venues for the residents,” she said. “We’ve made great strides in reactivating our downtown.”

River Vista, Gregory said, is among 800 new living units currently under construction in downtown Wichita, with 680 units already created in adaptive reuse programs.

“From where we started, we’ve more than doubled the downtown population. That’s huge,” Gregory said. “You talk about activating and adding, that’s been where a lot of the drivers have been in the development.”

Fluhr points to examples such as Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Nashville as cities that have renovated their downtowns and turned around their economies and growth.

“They had a moment of transformation to become who they are today,” Fluhr said. “Look at what they’ve been able to accomplish. Wichita, we believe, is at that moment right now, that transformational moment. Not only with the development, but peoples’ perceptions of the community. There’s a definite change for the better.”

Fluhr said examples of cities with riverfronts that have thrived are Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his native Louisville, Ky.

“At the end of the day, what we want to have is a riverfront that’s unique to Wichita,” he said. “And we have that.”

Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, nearing two years leading the city, said he had to fight to make a new downtown library a reality.

“Significant leaders in our community (said), ‘Don’t waste your money on a new library, those are yesteryear’ and now people say ‘Please continue to invest in Wichita and us and please continue to make a difference.’”

Longwell said he has seen a change in mindset on embracing the Arkansas.

“It’s recognizing the great asset we have with the river that runs through our city, and utilizing it to its full extent, and not let it become the ‘back door’ for many businesses that have literally turned their back on the river,” he said. “We’re changing that mindset.”

Additional bike and running paths, as well as the iconic Keeper of the Plains statue, are helping Wichitans appreciate the uniqueness of their town, Longwell said.

“I think we’ve finally shown them,” he said. “We’ve learned from what other cities have done, what other communities are doing. We don’t have to reinvent anything. We just have to figure out how to do it better here.”

In his travels, Longwell said, he’s learned from what other cities are doing to improve their downtowns areas, even much larger markets such as Denver and Los Angeles.

“It truly is going to change the game for us as we’re trying to develop our city into something better than it is today,” he said.

There are also facets that Longwell would like to see implemented, including a rapid transit bus system along Douglas Avenue, from Seneca Street to College Hill.

“What kind of difference would it make for that area?” he asked. “We are continuing to evaluate those things, and how we can move these initiatives forward.

“There’s a number of initiatives you’re literally going to see happen by 2019,” Longwell added.

Longwell says he’s far from satisfied with the improvements that have been made.

“We’re a long way from having an environment that’s recognized not just in Wichita but regionally and beyond that says, ‘Wichita — they’re doing great things. Let’s think about moving there.’ I want to build an environment that encourages that,” he said.