Citizens express support and concerns over ballpark development deal
Wichita can now sell its land to a mostly undisclosed group of developers for $1 an acre.
The Wichita City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to sell approximately 4 acres around the new $75 million baseball stadium to Wichita Riverfront LP.
That company is connected to Lou Schwechheimer, the principal owner of the New Orleans Baby Cakes. The team already has a management agreement and a facilities agreement, but the land sale was the “third leg of the stool” in a deal to lure the Baby Cakes to Wichita, City Manager Robert Layton said.
What land will be purchased has not been finalized, but it would have to be within the 24 acre footprint of the new stadium and south of Texas Street along McLean, according to an agreement signed by Mayor Jeff Longwell and Schwechheimer on Wednesday.
Longwell said last week that the agreement would not be fully executed until the developers were known. He and City Council members did not respond to emailed questions about the agreement and the developers on Wednesday.
City officials said fair market value of the land is between $750,000 and $800,000.
The vote came after four hours of citizen comments and presentations from the city, Schwechheimer and a neighboring development represented by George Laham.
Schwechheimer’s development plans have been scaled back. He said Wichita Riverfront LP modified its request from 4.5 acres to 4 acres. A Ferris wheel once considered as part of the plan isn’t happening now.
Schwechheimer said he wants to fix Wichita’s reputation as a “failed Minor League Baseball town.”
‘We don’t trust you’
A lack of transparency about the ballpark development agreement has been one of the key issues for people since it was first reported by The Eagle on March 3.
“We don’t trust you,” Donna Werth told the council. “I repeat: We don’t trust you. You have been working on this project for at least a year and a half, possibly longer. You have not involved the community . . . so how can I trust even the information that I heard here tonight?”
Layton acknowledged that communication about the development deal was poor, and vowed to do better in the future. He said he regrets that the development agreement was not made public sooner.
“We’re going to learn from this,” Layton said.
The meeting was moved to the evening to allow more people to attend, and the council chambers was packed with people until well after 10 p.m. Tuesday.
City Council members and Schwechheimer were adamant they wouldn’t leave until they heard everyone out.
Before anyone from the public spoke, Schwechheimer and Laham pitched their visions of the stadium area development, vowing to work together to develop a “Baseball Village Master Plan.”
Laham, whose group called Riverfront Partners is developing the area north of the ballpark, unveiled his vision for that parcel, saying the development could be “one of the most significant impacts on our city, in our downtown, for the next 50 years.”
McLean Boulevard along the river from Douglas to Maple would look like a street in Old Town: narrow, brick and “pedestrian friendly,” Laham said. It could be closed to traffic for events and on weekends.
The development is a concept at this time and subject to change, especially with regard to parking.
Some left the meeting happy, others confused and exhausted.
Thirty-one people spoke about the agreement during the meeting. Seven were clearly in favor of selling the land, 16 were opposed and six were unclear, with most of those speakers voicing frustrations about details of the deal and asking for more transparency.
“It’s baffling,” said Don Hysko, a transplant from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where Schwechheimer’s career in Minor League Baseball started with a former Red Sox affiliate franchise. “I came here with one simple question, and I came away with less of an idea what’s going on than when I woke up this morning.”
Hysko asked for a list of owners of Wichita Riverfront LP, the group the city is selling land to. He left the meeting without an answer.
Longwell has said the agreement won’t be final until the developers’ names are released.
“I don’t know because I believe they’re still talking to some local investors so I don’t think they have the total make-up yet of their team,” he said Thursday. “But in the development agreement it cannot be executed until they release the names of everyone on there.”
Mary Catherine Vernon questioned the city’s priorities.
“Building a new stadium ... is outrageous when our city doesn’t have enough money to keep all its pools open, is talking about closing two libraries that are in low-income areas and Waco is a washboard,” Vernon said.
Others were satisfied with the decision. Marilyn Bower, who is with the Delano Neighborhood Association, said all of her questions were answered by the city during its presentation.
“We need to go ahead with this,” Bower said. “This is fabulous. This is exactly what we need. I know we have some problems that we’ve got to work out, probably parking is one, but let’s do it. Because this is the time we need to do it, to bring it forward. Everything falls into place.”
Scott Stiles, who grew up in Ohio but later moved to Wichita, challenged his fellow citizens to imagine what the stadium could be.
Todd Ramsey, a Wichita business owner, said he came to the meeting with no expectation it would fail, no matter the concerns raised by the public.
“We want big projects,” Ramsey said. “We want to invest in our city. We want to do it better than this. So I know this is probably going to go 7-0, and nothing that’s being said tonight is going to change that. But, man, we want better.”
Both Schwechheimer and the city said Wichita faced several specific challenges to bring a minor league team at the start of their negotiations.
Schwechheimer said the three challenges for Wichita, besides not having a Triple-A ballpark, were travel, size of the market and perception.
“I’m proud to say that efforts by city staff [and] the Wichita Partnership, we really sought to educate league officials that despite the size of this market, and despite the sizzle of the market we were leaving, the population base and the region could support Triple-A baseball,” he said.
Scot Rigby, assistant city manager, said Wichita’s challenges started with a list of questions: “How do we energize the west bank of the Arkansas River? How do we attract an affiliated baseball team? How do we ensure the team’s sustainability? How do we minimize the cost to property tax payers?”
The ballpark deal and the land sale to Wichita Riverfront LP offered the best option for the city, Rigby said.
Longwell, who bore the brunt of the audience’s frustration, said he understands how past decisions by other city councils might have built up the community’s skepticism about projects along the river. But he also defended WaterWalk, seen by many as a failure to develop the east bank across the river from where the new stadium will be.
“Everybody can armchair quarterback, but what WaterWalk did was it got rid of a heck of a lot of blight and right now, today, there are negotiations going on to put potentially 700 jobs in the Gander Mountain building.”
During a recess, Longwell and Layton would not say more about those 700 jobs.
Layton said, “There are some preliminary discussions.”
But Wednesday, WaterWalk developer Jack DeBoer contradicted that. “I know of no deal involving 700 jobs for that building,” he said.
Bryan Frye said Wichita is “getting the best bang for taxpayer dollars.”
“I know I’m not going to please 100 percent of the people, but I know I can live with myself on it,” he said.
Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh, who represents the district that includes the development, said he based his decision on a simple principle.
“Would I do this with my own money? ... You bet I would,” he said.
Contributing: Carrie Rengers of The Eagle