Special Reports

County leaders are divided on downtown

Convincing a majority of Sedgwick County commissioners to buy into future downtown revitalization — both figuratively and literally —may prove a challenge for planners.

Consultants helping plot the course of downtown presented highlights of the plan to the county Wednesday. Commissioners' responses and questions illustrated how divided the board is about investing more in Wichita's central core.

The plan calls for $500 million in private investment and $100 million in public funds during the next 10 years.

Commissioner Gwen Welshimer asked whether all county residents — or just those who live in Wichita's city limits — should be expected to help foot the bill.

She questioned where the $100 million in public investment in the next decade would come from, noting "that is about what we collect every year in property taxes total."

Chairman Karl Peterjohn expressed caution.

"We live in a very challenging time for this plan and just in the last week we've had two announcements of major layoffs that are going to cost this community over a thousand jobs," he said.

As he often does, Peterjohn took a scholarly approach, recalling books he'd read in college such as "Death and Life of Great American Cities" and "The Unheavenly City."

"Some may view this as the beginning of the end in terms of a vision for downtown, but I view it more as an end of the beginning," Peterjohn said.

Commissioner Tim Norton said he'd read a book recently: "The Little Engine That Could."

"I read it to a grandchild, and there are some pretty good lessons from that.... We can move forward. We think we can.

"It's more about attitude than a lot of these other things, and I am going to continue to think about the best future for Sedgwick County and the region."

Norton said he sees the plan as being "market-driven but public supported."

During tough economic times, businesses and communities find out "who the risk-takers" and true leaders are, he said.

Norton said that doesn't mean he always will vote "yes" when the county makes decisions about downtown.

David Dixon, a principal at Goody Clancy — a Boston firm consulting with city and county leaders — emphasized that the plan "is not a case of invest ahead" of the private sector. "It's a case of invest in concert with.

"We are very aware that this is a period of scarce public resources. We also are very aware that there's a long and not terribly honorable history of trying to revive downtowns by leading with very significant public investment and hoping they will come. It really wasn't very successful. This plan is about leading with private investment."

Commissioner Dave Unruh said he sees residents owning the plan.

"I'm pleased you have driven it to this plateau of accomplishment, this plateau of success," he said.

Although he prefers living outside Wichita, commissioner Kelly Parks of Valley Center thanked Goody Clancy for its "hard work on this. I guess it just depends on whether you want fresh air or Time Square. . . I would want to say that I prefer my neighbors to be away 300 foot and have a place to turn around my horse trailer.

"That's what makes our country great, being able to live wherever you want."

Parks said he likes the push for more public transportation, including "park and ride" programs.

The commission will vote on whether to adopt the plan as part of the county's master plan. That vote likely will occur early next year.

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., said commissioners have been involved in the plan since its beginning.

"We certainly welcome and appreciate their continued involvement," he said, adding that county leaders already have "made a substantial investment in our downtown with Intrust Bank Arena and Exploration Place."

Downtown leaders will work to answer commissioners' questions and address their concerns, he said.

"Certainly the community appreciates when all the stakeholders work collaboratively, and we certainly want to continue that collaboration working with the city and the county along with the private sector to really develop this downtown to be strong for the region."

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