Most cities of any size or seriousness have a roomy, up-to-date public arena for concerts and sporting events. Now so does Wichita, to the credit of so many leaders and dreamers past and present. And Sedgwick County's 15,000-seat Intrust Bank Arena is downtown, no less, where the activity it generates can spark private investment and more activity.
It was a long, long time coming.
The failed arena vote of 1993. The Wichita State University choice in 2000 to pass on downtown and instead fix up the old Roundhouse. The aborted DynaPlex vote in 2002. Sedgwick County's short-lived decision in 2003 to plow $55 million into a Kansas Coliseum renovation. The successful "Vote Yea!" campaign in 2004. The displacement of Episcopal Social Services, the strange talk of an arena over the river, and the other painful debates about the site, parking and neighborhood improvements.
For those who lived through even part of the arena's difficult creation, Saturday's open house and country star Brad Paisley's Jan. 9 opening concert represent a community triumph of optimism and vision over can't-do thinking, and a recognition that the vibrant downtown of Wichita's dreams needs the drawing power and quality-of-life boost of a big, shiny venue for touring acts and events.
The Intrust Bank Arena was born of the impressive show of unified political will on the part of Wichita and Sedgwick County officials, cheered on by the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission and local and regional business groups. Then voters saw the wisdom of building a new arena in the heart of the city with a 30-month, 1-percent sales tax rather than using property-tax money for an upgrade of the outdated Kansas Coliseum in the suburbs. Intrust Bank and other companies signed on with their support, inking naming rights and other key deals. And its architects gave the arena a functional design that manages to reflect both the future and the past, complementing its brick-rich Old Town neighborhood.
Among the $205.5 million facility's best features: it's paid for, with a tax that actually ended on schedule and generated more revenue than forecast.
Much of the grumbling leading up to Saturday's opening has been well-founded, about everything from where all the Taylor Swift tickets went to where everybody is going to park. It's hard not to wish that the Wichita Thunder, the arena's lone sports tenant, were having a better season. And there are no guarantees that the arena will be trouble-fee going forward, in this lousy economy or long term.
But at least some of the things booked for the Intrust Bank Arena — such as Swift, Bon Jovi, Elton John/Billy Joel and the first two rounds of the 2011 NCAA Women's Division I Basketball Tournament — surely would have passed on Wichita if not for the new iconic venue in a once-moribund neighborhood. That fact alone has made the arena worth both the wait and the public cost.