Wichita is expecting a lot of out-of-town company 10 months from now and efforts are already well underway to make sure downtown is as spruced up as it can be when March Madness rolls into the city.
With Wichita hosting its first NCAA tournament weekend since the building of the Sedgwick County-owned Intrust Bank Arena, both the county and city are working on public improvements to be ready for the influx of some of the nation’s top college basketball teams and the thousands of fans they bring with them.
Some of the projects are major, including a $3.5 million street reconstruction in Old Town and a $1.63 million facelift to the Intrust Arena’s north entrance. Others projects are small, such as repairing damaged mosaic tilework at the WaterWalk’s dancing-waters fountain and replacing aged and weathered street signs.
Most of the improvements would have been done over time anyway, but the city is making a special effort to get as much done as possible in time to showcase Wichita while the visitors and national television networks are in town, said Scot Rigby, the assistant city manager who is overseeing much of the prep work.
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All told, the city and county together will probably spend about $7 million to $10 million on improvements downtown by tournament time. That will be partially offset by a boost in commerce over the tournament weekend.
Tulsa, which hosted a first-round tournament site this year, estimated it would bring $8 million to $10 million in additional spending to the local economy, and Wichita is expected to see similar results.
“I think it’s a start,” Rigby said. “I think it’s always dangerous to think a three-day event is going to fund everything. I think it’s one of those things that we look at the NCAA as just an important three-day event, but it’s just a start of a number of events that will be taking place in the downtown.”
County Commission Chairman David Unruh said the tournament turned out to be a perfect spur to correct a design flaw and expand the north entrance of the arena.
“The original concept was we’d have a few people coming from the establishments in Old Town” north of the arena, Unruh said. “It’s clearly turned out to be lots and lots of people coming from that direction.”
The project will enlarge the north lobby, add three sets of double doors and an additional stairway to the concourse levels.
In addition, the renovation will remove a few parking spaces for an outdoor plaza for pre-game activities, said Finance Director Lindsay Poe-Rousseau, who is overseeing the project for the county.
Completion is expected by December, in plenty of time to be ready for March Madness, she said.
The county also is spending $385,000 on upgrading the Wi-Fi internet system at the arena.
While the improvement was planned before Tulsa’s tournament turn, it should help Intrust avoid one of the problems that surfaced at Tulsa’s BOK Center – a lack of Wi-Fi service for reporters covering the games in the arena seating area.
Per NCAA rules, the BOK had run wire internet hookups to each seat in the press area, leaving a number of reporters unable to connect because they had newer computers without ethernet ports. Arena officials had to scramble to get Wi-Fi set up after the first session of games.
In addition to the county’s work on the arena itself, the city has contracted for numerous projects around the arena and city-owned tourist attractions to make the whole area more visitor-friendly.
Here’s a look at what’s been done, what’s underway and what’s left to do:
▪ Botanica – Replacement of the interior flooring in the entryway.
▪ St. Francis Street – Conversion from one-way traffic to two-way between Lincoln and Waterman.
▪ Keeper of the Plains – Improvements to pedestrian pathways, enhanced viewing areas and additional stone pavement.
▪ Sign replacement – The city has been working for about two years to replace and/or relocate all the overhead street signs in the central business district, to create a more consistent look. Work should be complete by the end of this year.
▪ Douglas Avenue – Improvements from Washington to Main including planters, trellis light upgrades, sidewalk improvements and landscaping. Sidewalks at intersections are being “bulbed out” to give pedestrians a raised concrete area to stand on while waiting to cross the street.
▪ Kellogg – Improving the appearance of street approaches to the Kellogg freeway downtown. The project includes rust removal, priming and painting, panel replacement, reflective yellow striping around signal faces and new street-name signs. Expected to be completed in August.
▪ Traffic signals – Replacement and optimization of traffic-signal timing equipment to reduce congestion and make it easier to drive through the central business district. Completion expected this fall.
Projects to come
▪ Old Cowtown – Project to improve drainage, install new boardwalks and improve outside lighting. Completion projected late this year.
▪ WaterWalk – Replacement of damaged and flaking-off mosaic tile around the dancing waters fountain. Also improvements in the railings and fencing around the fountain pool. Completion expected this summer.
▪ Arkansas River – Construction of a waterfront path along the east bank of the river from the Lincoln Street Dam to where the current concrete path ends just south of the Gander Mountain store in the WaterWalk. The concrete walkway will replace a packed-dirt path along the river created by people walking there. Completion expected in fall of this year.
▪ Douglas and Hydraulic – Plans are to reconstruct the intersection and install public art and aesthetic improvements. Completion expected this fall.
▪ Old Town – Aesthetic improvement to the railroad overcrossings at First and Second streets, incorporating themes derived from Vincent Van Gogh paintings; First and Second streets to be torn out and rebuilt between Santa Fe and Washington. The project also will pave short sections of Santa Fe on either side of the intersections to reduce cars tracking gravel onto bike paths from the unpaved section of street. The project will be partially completed by March, and remaining work will be scheduled around the tournament to avoid having streets torn up at that time.
▪ Commerce Street Arts District – Surfacing rear parking on Commerce Street. Completion expected this summer.
▪ Douglas Railroad Bridge – A city consultant is working on a plan for structural improvements, paint and lighting at the railroad overpass, a key route for pedestrians to cross under the tracks from Old Town to the arena. However, any changes will have to be approved by the BNSF Railway, and city officials are uncertain whether they’ll be able to make any improvements in time for the tournament.