Politics & Government

What to do about Century II? Most Wichita mayor candidates don’t offer firm plans

Does the Century II have a future?

You wouldn’t know from listening to most of the candidates for Wichita mayor who met in an open forum Monday evening, where they were asked to share their vision for the east bank of the Arkansas River downtown.

Of the eight candidates who participated, only Mark Gietzen, who’s generally considered a long shot, said he wanted to keep the venerable convention and performing arts center alive.

No one directly advocated for tearing it down and starting over.

Retired banking executive Lyndy Wells said Wichita is missing out on convention business and entertainment opportunities “because of the inadequacies of our current facilities.”

Wells called the river corridor “one of the most attractive areas of our city” and said that it needs to be developed.

He didn’t specifically say whether Century II should be razed, but said the city needs to facilitate more discussions.

“I don’t believe I have the answers,” he said. “I believe the community needs to respond to that.”

Incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell and state Rep. Brandon Whipple, the two current office holders in the race, also said the community needs to have a role.

“We’re fortunate to have a river corridor that we’re finally embracing,” Longwell said. “We’re not turning our back on the river.

“For the first time we have apartments on the river. We have activity on the river. What my vision is at this point doesn’t matter. It’s what the community’s vision is going to be as we go through this planning process.”

Whipple said the questions that need to be asked are “Does it make sense? Does it make dollars and cents?”

“Is it going to add the investment we need and generate the jobs that will actually produce the growth that we desire to produce?”

Candidate Amy Lyon, a tax compliance manager, said she has talked with about 20 people who have ideas and plans for the east bank.

“I’m absolutely for an arts and culture corridor through there,” she said, “Historically, we haven’t listened to the citizens of this community, not thoroughly . . . and there’s a lot of good ideas out there.”

Gietzen, an anti-abortion activist and former Sedgwick County Republican chairman, vehemently defended keeping the Century II.

“It’s a historic building, it’s a landmark,” Gietzen said. “Too many of these plans say ‘OK, first we take a wrecking ball to Century II’ . . . We can repair it, we can make it bigger, we can make it nicer.”

If a new convention center is needed, it can be built on the other side of the river, he said.

Marty Mork, a self-described “freedom fighter,” and conservative Republican, said the city shouldn’t be involved in developing the east bank.

“I believe it needs to be private developers,” he said. “I don’t believe we need to be spending all our tax dollars

Ian Demory, a teacher, said he would like to see beautification, with a cleanup and more public art sculptures.

“I would actually like to, almost in a park way, give us something for people to come into to see and a nice place to visit,” he said.

Brock Booker said the key to the development decision is to “particularize what it is going on downtown near the river.”

“How we do that is of course getting people at the table that need to be at the table no matter what their ideology or setbacks or personal views are,” he said. “Many people do not have a television or a computer. We have to reach people digitally. Everybody’s got a cell phone, or two.”

Candidate Joshua Atkinson did not participate in the forum, which was sponsored by the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce and W, formerly Young Professionals of Wichita.

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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.