Butler, WSU Tech and Wichita State in talks about partnering for downtown culinary school

Wichita State University, WSU Tech and Butler Community College are in talks about partnering for a culinary arts program in downtown Wichita, although no agreement has been signed.

“WSU and WSU Tech are interested in the proposal for a new higher education cluster in downtown Wichita. We’re in a learning stage and have more listening and analysis to do before considering a commitment,” said Joe Kleinsasser, a spokesperson for Wichita State, in a written statement.

The culinary training program would be part of a downtown education complex planned by developer Sudha Tokala that also includes a private school of osteopathic medicine, student apartments and a Marriott hotel.

“There is a lot of food choices now — more than before,” Tokala said. “You go to any event now and people want vegetarian, they want something that’s vegan, they want something that’s gluten free.”

“We want to have healthy food habits, and I think that it’s very difficult for catering companies to hire individuals who have that kind of broad spectrum of skills,” she said.

“So that was my main goal in starting a culinary school would be that it be state-of-the-art and that it be mainly geared towards different culinary needs of today versus 10 years ago.”

The culinary arts school would also serve as a linchpin for the downtown complex because the Kansas Health Science Center, a private medical school, could require all of its students to take culinary medicine classes there, Tokala said.

“It is part of the curriculum to learn culinary medicine,” she said Tuesday of the planned curriculum submitted to the Kansas Board of Regents. “So whoever takes that spot in the Henry’s building will be teaching.”

Those plans could change, depending on the direction the school’s leaders want to take, Tokala said. But it’s all part of her vision to create a place where students can “eat, study, play, work and live,” she said.

“(The Kansas Health Science Center is) trying to do interdisciplinary learning, versus just a DO school on the outskirts of town that wouldn’t benefit anybody,” she said.

Tokala said she’s not ready to announce a tenant for the former Henry’s department store building, but said it will be a nonprofit technical college. To receive city help on her project, she would need to lease at least 25,000 square feet to WSU Tech, formerly Wichita Area Technical College, according to a resolution approved by Wichita’s City Council.

“Ms. Tokala shared with the City early on in this project her commitment to have a WSU Tech culinary school in her development project,” Elyse Mohler said in an email.

“The City simply memorialized what Ms. Tokala said she was going to do.”

The estimated cost of city-funded repairs to the Henry’s Building, 124 S. Broadway, is $1.6 million. That money would cover the costs of replacing the terra cotta facade, cornice, canopy, windows, external lighting and outdoor flooring. It would come from the city in the form of a community improvement district, which pays back general obligation bonds through an added sales tax in a designated district.

Officials from WSU and WSU Tech would not say anything beyond Kleinsasser’s written statement.

Butler Community College could also be part of the program, an official with the two-year program said.

“Butler has been part of the conversations for a number of months regarding a partnered program with WSU Tech and Wichita State University,” said Kelly Snedden, director of college relations and marketing at Butler. “Nothing has been finalized with any of the institutions but conversations are continuing.”

WSU Tech and WSU moved to shutter Butler’s plans last spring to open a hospitality and culinary arts program in a former downtown fire station.

“Any attempt by your institution to try and locate a Hospitality and Culinary Arts program to downtown Wichita is not approved by WSU,” said a cease-and-desist letter signed by WSU General Counsel David Moses. He said opening a program in Sedgwick County would be “directly adverse” to efforts by WSU and WSU Tech to “explore hospitality programmatic options.”

But at the time WSU Tech President Sheree Utash said she was still willing to discuss a collaboration with Butler.

Utash could not be reached for comment.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle