Eagle editorial: Downtown’s rebound

Though it falls short of what was asserted as recently as February, the impressive recent 6.3-to-1 ratio of private to public investment in downtown Wichita requires no apologies. Like the foot traffic in Old Town, the massive construction within Block One along Douglas and the big plans for Union Station, it says the 3-year-old downtown master plan is working as hoped.

According to the 2012 Downtown Economic Report, private investment downtown since 2010 totals $194 million, compared with $30.6 million in public investment. The public number doesn’t count the $190 million spent by Sedgwick County on Intrust Bank Arena, which opened in January 2010. But it does include spending related to the capital improvement program, tax increment financing, community improvement district funding and Community Development Block Grant funds within the downtown Self Supported Municipal Improvement District (from Central to Kellogg and from Washington to the river).

The ratio puts the downtown plan on track to do better than the 15- to 20-year goal set in 2010, which was for $500 million in private-sector investment and $100 million in public spending for parking, streets, parks and other infrastructure. However, it didn’t meet the nearly 9-to-1 ratio of private to public investment claimed, and challenged, during a report to the Wichita City Council in February.

That’s a good caution for downtown leaders going forward. Nailing down the numbers will help with public accountability, though even a 6.3-to-1 ratio won’t quiet the public-subsidy critics.

The report card on the downtown plan does demonstrate private investment is returning to the core – and without having to be dragged there by the city, as Wichita Downtown Development Corp. chairman Gary Schmitt of Intrust Bank told The Eagle last week.

Among the other interesting numbers released last week as part of WDDC’s effort to “get our arms around the economics of downtown,” as WDDC president Jeff Fluhr put it:

•  Property values within the SSMID were at $697 million last year, up from $504 million in 2009.

•  The total of downtown residential units had grown to 933 last year, up from 773 in 2009, and 89 percent of the downtown residents have moved into the district since 2005.

•  The total of downtown hotel rooms within the SSMID grew from 777 in 2009 to 994 in 2012 (while the occupancy rate nudged downward, to 65.2 percent last year).

•  Arts and culture are a significant magnet to downtown, with Exploration Place, Old Cowtown Museum, the Orpheum Theatre, the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum and the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame standing out for attendance growth in recent years.

So far, so good. And it’s particularly remarkable that downtown’s rebound has powered through the struggling economy.

WDDC should keep the projects coming, along with the numbers to verify the downtown plan’s success.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman