Politics & Government

King of Freight’s move to Gander Mountain signals end of WaterWalk’s glitzy dreams

The Wichita City Council has approved King of Freight’s move to WaterWalk, signaling an end to plans for a glitzy entertainment district on the east bank of the Arkansas River.

Despite some reluctance to turn over prime riverfront property for office space, the council Tuesday unanimously approved King of Freight’s planned move into the former Gander Mountain store at the WaterWalk.

King of Freight is a freight brokerage that connects trucking companies with loads that need to be shipped. It has 535 employees and promises to add at least 400 more as part of the deal for the Gander Mountain building, which is on city-owned land that was leased for $1 a year to WaterWalk for 99 years.

The vote signals a recognition that WaterWalk will likely never be the vibrant focal point of downtown revitalization that its developers promised 15 years ago.

City Manager Robert Layton said he has been in talks with WaterWalk developer Jack DeBoer for the past year about recasting the WaterWalk as an office park development, now that the city is committed to a new $75 million Triple-A baseball stadium and an accompanying village of restaurants, bars and shops on the west bank.

“Remember now that the key for an entertainment district is across the river,” Layton said. “The fact that (WaterWalk) was formulated in a very different environment 15 years ago, it unfortunately maybe isn’t as dynamic as it should have been. I think Mr. DeBoer recognizes that and is willing to look at something that maybe is more marketable today.”

Tuesday’s vote also means it will probably be decades, if ever, before the city recoups the $41 million in public subsidies that have been spent on the WaterWalk project.

The original agreement calls for the city to receive 25 percent of the net profit from WaterWalk rentals, but the contract was so favorable to the developer that the city has never gotten any profit-sharing and probably never will.

If King of Freight keeps the 400 new jobs in Wichita for 10 years, the city will drop the profit-sharing clause from the contract.

It is estimated that the taxes paid by King of Freight’s new employees will be about $100,000 a year and the company is committing to pay the city $70,000 a year for parking.

Because of term limits, no one serving on the council today was part of the original WaterWalk plan.

“I get it. We’re all struggling a little bit with this. Is it the best use of the river?” Mayor Jeff Longwell said. “None of us like the way that building was oriented along the river corridor. Certainly it’s something we would have done differently or asked them to do differently from day one, but we didn’t have that power or authority.”

Longwell also said growing the freight brokerage helps the economy diversify away from its traditional aviation manufacturing base.

“We need more density, we need more bodies, we need more opportunities,” he said. “This does lock them in to growing long term in Wichita, maybe not necessarily growing long term on that site, but it locks them in to growing in Wichita.”

The Gander Mountain building has sat vacant since 2017, when the outdoor-products warehouse retailer went bankrupt.

Council members Brandon Johnson and Jeff Blubaugh expressed reservations about the King of Freight proposal, but voted for it.

The vote was a unanimous 6-0 with Bryan Frye absent.

Hoyt Hillman, a river activist and member of the city’s Park Board, urged the council to reject the office plan.

“This is what you get when you sit on your hands, OK?” Hillman said. “You have a beautiful piece of land that had an opportunity to be developed into something really useful and you’re going to pass it off.”

He offered to work with King of Freight, the city or anyone else to better activate the river behind the building.

Delano photographer and resident Christopher Parisho said turning over the building for office space “totally defies everything the WaterWalk was sold to us as.”

“I’m asking you to really think hard before you do this because you could be tying your hands for something even greater,” he said.

He suggested a better use would be a performing arts center to replace the theaters in the Century II Convention and Performing Arts Center.

But Andrew Nave of the Greater Wichita Partnership spoke in favor of King of Freight’s plan.

“Freight brokerage is one of the fastest growing segments of the logistics industry,” he said. “This industry segment continues to grow and we should be very proud of a hometown company . . . that’s one of the rising stars in this space.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.