Politics & Government

Commerce Street March Madness party approved over Old Town objections

Jewelry Designer Deb Navarro said she’s looking forward to a party proposed for Commerce Street during the NCAA tournament, because it reminds her of the kinds of parties they have around special events in Houston where she used to live.
Jewelry Designer Deb Navarro said she’s looking forward to a party proposed for Commerce Street during the NCAA tournament, because it reminds her of the kinds of parties they have around special events in Houston where she used to live. The Wichita Eagle

Get this party started on a Saturday – and Thursday – night.

That was the decision that emerged from the Wichita City Council on Tuesday for “Courtside on Commerce, the Alley to Excitement.”

The council voted to close Commerce Street for two days next month for a big party in conjunction with the NCAA basketball tournament weekend at Intrust Bank Arena.

The party, to be hosted by Xclusive Events, is aimed at providing something to do before, after and between games in the March Madness tournament.

It will feature food trucks and mobile beer gardens – though plans for outdoor musical entertainment were dropped after objections from the neighbors.

The closure will also allow celebrators to drink on the street and sidewalks and carry beverages to and from private parties that Xclusive is hosting inside venues on Commerce Street.

The council approved closing Commerce for March 15, a Thursday, and March 17, a Saturday.

Mayor Jeff Longwell and council member Bryan Frye voted no.

They both wanted to limit the festivities to Saturday only.

But they were outvoted by Brandon Johnson, Cindy Claycomb, Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin. Council member Jeff Blubaugh was absent.

The split vote came after objections from Morrie Sheets, owner of Mort’s Martini and Cigar Bar, who spoke on behalf of business owners in the Old Town area north of the arena.

Sheets said those businesses and the city have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare Old Town for the tournament and it doesn’t make sense to shift the celebration to Commerce Street.

“People are coming here to see the beautiful things we’ve done in the past, not a bunch of old warehouses and parking lots,” Sheets said.

Thousands of tourists are expected to attend the weekend of basketball games and it’s expected to bring about $10 million of additional commerce to the area.

Commerce Street south of the arena was once one of the city’s most run-down neighborhoods, but has been revitalized in recent years into an art colony and gentrified with small businesses and loft apartments.

Crystal McDonald, who runs Xclusive Events with her brother Cody Lathrop, said they just wanted to put on a fun event and did all they could to not be a nuisance to the neighbors.

“We kind of feel a little attacked here,” said McDonald. “It’s not like this is our event. It’s the NCAA coming to Wichita. We just felt like this is something we’re giving back to the city.

“We really apologize to anybody, to Mort’s or to anybody else that thinks we’re trying to step on their toes. We just really wanted to have a fun, exciting event.”

Longwell asked the Xclusive owners if they could just have a Saturday party, when it would be less disruptive to the businesses and residents of the street.

They replied that they would give up if they couldn’t go on Thursday, because that’s the biggest business day for the tournament.

With four games scheduled, there will be fans of eight teams wandering Wichita looking for something to do.

By Saturday, half those teams will be eliminated and many of their fans will have departed for home.

Opponents of the party did get one concession.

The plan before the council Tuesday called for the street to be closed from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. both days.

The approved version requires organizers to shut down by 11 p.m. on Thursday.

McDonald said she’s happy with the outcome, although the vote “was closer than I expected.”

Sheets said he was also OK with the Commerce Street party after the council limited Thursday’s celebration to 11 p.m.

“We’re open til 2, so everybody can come over to our place after,” he said.

A sampling of sights and sounds from Final Friday art gallery crawl on South Commerce.

Dion Lefler: 316-268-6527, @DionKansas

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