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Successful cities offer blueprints for Wichita

When Goody Clancy rolls out its initial plan for downtown Wichita on June 14, city officials will be armed with what the city could do to redevelop downtown and why it should happen.

Today, The Eagle begins a four-part series on how four American cities have brought life back to their downtowns.

The blueprints from Oklahoma City; Boise, Idaho; Baton Rouge, La.; and Milwaukee are different with differing levels of success, but the motives are the same: Downtowns are key to attracting and keeping business, industry and people.

Those blueprints will be important as Wichita city officials plan their next steps downtown, Mayor Carl Brewer said.

"I think that part of what we have to do next is identify the exact direction we want to go, the projects we want to get done," Brewer said. "Then, we pick a manageable number and start getting those projects completed."

That will require residents' involvement, the mayor said, as will the decision on how to pay for them. Among the options: sales taxes, bond issues, state funding, public-private partnerships.

"This is the way we have to look at things here," Brewer said. "We have to look at how these cities got it done in their downtowns and then we ask for help throughout the process. We call in people, put all the options out and let the citizens help us decide."

Oklahoma City

In Oklahoma City, a visionary mayor, Ron Norick, got tired of industrial recruitment failures and put the city's future in the hands of the voters.

He defined nine downtown projects in a single $363 million package, got voter approval for the deal and then produced the centerpieces of the city's downtown on time and on budget: Ford Center, Bricktown Ballpark, a renovated Myriad convention center, a new library and others.

The projects were all debt-free, paid for by a multiyear 1-cent sales tax that brought in $400 billion in private downtown investment over the past 12 years.

Since then, voters have extended the tax to raise more than $1.1 billion for downtown projects.

Boise

Downtown Boise, overseen by a quasi-public urban renewal agency, the Capital City Development Corp., is a mix of Lawrence's Massachusetts Street and Wichita's Bradley Fair.

Once a mecca for used-car lots and shabby bars, the downtown area now is "the" place to hang out for college students, families and professionals.

Downtown has been financed by a mix of private and public dollars — with the goal of a ratio of $5 of private investment for each dollar of public investment.

Boise has three tax-increment financing districts downtown. Wichita also uses TIF districts, which channel new property tax payments into a fund that pays off bonds on improvements such as streetscaping or parking garages.

Boise leaders say the key to solid downtown development is having a plan and sticking with it.

Baton Rouge

Sitting on the east bank of the Mississippi River, Baton Rouge's downtown has come back to life after a combination of public and private investment pumped $2.4 billion into redevelopment over 23 years.

Continuity of leadership and a well-financed foundation have been a driving forces in making it happen.

Now on its third downtown plan, Louisiana's state capital has finished several big-ticket projects, including a $70 million hotel renovation and a $55 million renovation of a center for the arts. Plans call for creating a $9 million town square and a $680 million riverfront development.

Downtown activity has been spurred by the consolidation of state offices into a 200-acre park, completed in 2007.

The cozy streets that once rolled up at 5 p.m. now have more than 60 restaurants and 30 bars, creating an active weekend nightlife. But attracting residents and retail are the biggest challenges.

Milwaukee

The juxtaposition of high-end development and gritty urbanism are part of what makes this built-out downtown on the shore of Lake Michigan thrive.

It has embraced its industrial, beer-soaked history while building a future on a variety of government-backed incentives, a diverse student population and leaders who are as conversant in architectural design and urban planning as they are in politics.

It's a much larger version of what a lot of Wichita leaders say they want to evolve out of the 20-year revitalization plan currently in the works.

But while Milwaukee is nearly double Wichita's size, its RiverWalk, niche downtown grocers, trendy Historic Third Ward and bustling downtown core provide lessons in what works and what doesn't.

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