Eagle editorial: Don’t vacate Finney State Office Building

What would the Finney State Office Building in downtown Wichita be without its state offices and its more than 700 employees? Possibly an empty monument to a once-prized city-state partnership, as well as a blow to downtown redevelopment. That’s why city officials must not shrug off the state’s disappointing decision to vacate the building as of October 2014, but instead aggressively pursue a new deal.

Given the state revenue problems ahead as the income-tax cuts take full effect, state government has been cutting back everywhere it can and even some places it shouldn’t, such as in corrections and higher education. With cash sure to be tight by the time the current leases for the Finney building expire, the state is smart to be assessing its costs and looking to reduce them.

But the reasons publicly offered for the move so far haven’t pointed to some hard-and-fast analysis of costs versus benefits.

“After visiting with those agencies, we just determined it would be in the best interest of those agencies and their clients to seek space elsewhere,” Chuck Knapp, spokesman for the Department of Administration, told The Eagle’s Carrie Rengers.

“The reason we’re leaving is that the facility doesn’t meet our needs anymore,” Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for the Department for Children and Families, told Rengers, calling the lobby inadequate and its multiple floors difficult for clients and staff to move between.

As Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, has observed, though, the Finney building’s central location is a benefit for employees and visitors. By design, it’s also one block from the Transit Center, making it possible for DCF’s low-income clients, for example, to reach the agency even if they don’t drive. If such offices are relocated somewhere less accessible by city bus, their customer service and clients will suffer.

And if they are parceled out to multiple sites, the state will be moving back to the confusing status quo that the one-stop complex was meant to remedy – after years of advocacy and negotiation by key players at the time including Gov. Joan Finney, Mayor Bob Knight, Sedgwick County Commissioner Billy McCray and Shelby Smith, a former lieutenant governor who had been Gov. Mike Hayden’s secretary of administration.

After plans were announced in 1992 for the ingenious $15 million reinvention of the old Innes-Macy’s-Dillard’s department store, an Eagle editorial offered praise under the headline, “Good deal: New state office building a monument to cooperation.”

Two decades later, Mayor Carl Brewer should press Gov. Sam Brownback to craft a new agreement that will keep the Finney State Office Building from becoming a monument to a lapse of cooperation, and keep the nine state agencies in the building designed for them in the heart of the state’s largest city.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman