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Office This reaches 75 percent occupancy with two new tenants

WICHITA — Max Cole was not short on skeptics of his plans to convert the former Wichita Mall at 4031 E. Harry into Office This, a 400,000-square-foot facility that leases offices and conference rooms of all sizes.

But construction crews are busy readying two new spaces for tenants that will bring occupancy to 75 percent this summer.

That compares to about 1 percent two years ago when Cole first started leasing.

"It's kind of getting cool," he says.

Sedgwick County, which already has 38,000 square feet at Office This, is taking another 16,000 square feet for its Juvenile Field Services office. That office currently is in Parklane Shopping Center at Lincoln and Oliver.

Field Services needs more space.

"It's essentially custom-design space," says Bob Lamkey, Sedgwick County's director of public safety.

The office is taking some of the former Montgomery Ward space, which he describes as a shell that can be molded to that office's needs.

"At a very competitive rate, by the way," Lamkey says. "It's worked well for us."

Bethel House, which offers attended care in people's homes and at small facilities, currently has 800 square feet at Office This and now will take 3,300 near the front of the center.

Darlene Finley, who handles client and employee relations for Bethel House, says she noticed a difference in business as soon as the company moved to its first space at Office This in January.

"The first thing that we realized it afforded us was instant image," she says. "The moment people walk into that grand entrance . . . right there you have instant image."

Cole says Bethel House's space is going to feature a lot of curved walls and other unique features.

"Bethel House is going to be magnificent," he says. "Wait till you see it finished. It'll be a show place."

Cole is replacing the facade around the former Montgomery Ward space and in the back of the mall. When he's done, the entire mall will have been refaced.

There's still 50,000 square feet left to lease at the former Montgomery Ward space. There's also about 30,000 square feet on the south end of Office This.

Cole, a Wichita native who spent 30 years out west, knows he still has skeptics.

"When I came back to town . . . all of the real estate people said, 'Don't go south of Kellogg,' " he says.

Cole didn't listen.

"Because if everybody tells me to not do something, that's what I generally try to do," he says.

Also, Cole didn't want to compete with developers who concentrate on the more prosperous east and west sides of Wichita.

In a tough economy, he says his plan is flourishing while some other developers' plans are on hold.

"We're just doing fine because we can rent lower and provide so much more," Cole says.

And that's why he thinks he'll have all of Office This leased by the end of the year.

"Well, I don't think there's going to be any problem."