Politics & Government

County OKs Project Wichita funds, but commissioner questions intentions toward Century II

Aerial view of Century II

A look at Century II from the air. While the city of Wichita grapples with what to do with the aging Century II – either renovate or scrap and start over, we take a drone flight over the 48-year-old building that opened in 1969. (Video By Bo Rader
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A look at Century II from the air. While the city of Wichita grapples with what to do with the aging Century II – either renovate or scrap and start over, we take a drone flight over the 48-year-old building that opened in 1969. (Video By Bo Rader

A Sedgwick County commissioner publicly questioned Wednesday whether Project Wichita is a legitimate effort to gather input on the future of the community, or a pretext to generate public support for tearing down Century II and building a new convention and performing arts center.

A co-chairman of Project Wichita said Century II is likely to be part of the discussion, but the project’s goal is to take a much broader look at community wants and needs and how to handle them. And he assured the commission that any research done by Project Wichita will be on the up and up.

The issue arose during debate over whether Sedgwick County should spend $45,000 to be part of Project Wichita, which was approved 4-1 with Ranzau opposing it.

Project Wichita is a two-month-old alliance of business and government interests whose stated goal is “a community engagement process to discover the community's vision for Wichita in the next 10 years.”

The group has signed up Wichita State University’s Public Policy and Management Center to conduct a series of surveys, focus groups and interviews and to analyze the data.

Discussions about Century II's future have been percolating for years. City Manager Bob Layton recommended last year that the city modernize the current building rather than build a new convention and performing arts center. Others have pushed to tear down the building and start fresh.

“I’ve had multiple people tell me this, that a lot of this (Project Wichita) is related to Century II,” Ranzau said. “Some people weren’t happy (with Layton’s recommendation) and now we want a committee to look at this and maybe some other projects and the end goal is to build a new Century II with a countywide sales tax.

“And we’re going to use WSU and have these meetings to make it look like that’s what everybody wants. I’ve had people tell me that are familiar with this that that’s kind of where this got started, or at least a part of it.”

Scott Schwindaman, president and CEO of Lubrication Engineers and co-chairman of Project Wichita, disputed Ranzau’s characterization of the effort.

Schwindaman said Mayor Jeff Longwell has already formed a separate committee on the future of Century II and that Project Wichita isn’t focused on any particular project.

“That is not the purpose of Project Wichita, to work on Century II or any of those projects that are occurring,” Schwindaman said. “Will it bubble up when we do the survey work and stuff, commissioner? I believe it probably will. Will it be a significant piece of it? I don’t know. I don’t know until I get the data if Century II becomes the hot button per se of the community.”

He said about 75 private businesses, including hard-to-reach minority business interests, have committed funding. The group had raised $300,000 from private and public sources, according to a slide he presented at the meeting.

“We’re really moving out and trying to make sure we touch everybody in the region and what their desires and what their wants are,” he said.

Ranzau wasn’t convinced.

“I’m still not sure about the necessity for this or the actual specific goal of this,” Ranzau said. “And I’m concerned about the hidden agenda that may be there, that I’ve been told by multiple people is here.”

Other commissioners sided with Project Wichita and thanked them for their efforts.

Commission Chairman David Dennis called it “a critical thing that needs to be happening.”

“I think that this is a great opportunity for us to say that we are partners in what’s going on; to recognize the business leaders that took time out to come and speak to us today,” Dennis said. “I think the folks who came up with this are visionaries themselves and the ones that are working this are visionaries.”

Commissioners who supported the project said they think it will build on the community energy generated by last month’s NCAA basketball tournament weekend and announced expansions at Spirit AeroSystems and other businesses.

“I think this is the right time to capitalize on what I sense is some real strong momentum here in south-central Kansas for just public attitude and the things that are going on,” said Commissioner David Unruh.

He said with the data from Project Wichita, “We have an opportunity to avoid confusion and duplication and conflict going forward because we’re all going to be, I hope, the goal of this is to be focused on the same thing.”

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