Eagle editorial: Finney partnership worth saving

Wichitans are learning more about the reasons, including crowded conditions and a cumbersome seven-floor layout, that prompted the Brownback administration to give notice on its lease on the city-owned Finney State Office Building. Now, officials at the state and city need to work together to try to save this enduring, mutually beneficial partnership.

If not, nine state agencies and more than 700 employees will vacate the facility at 230 E. William as of October 2014 after two decades, leaving behind a building renovated for the state – and perhaps creating a big, hard-to-fill hole in downtown redevelopment.

This is no ordinary landlord-tenant relationship. It marked a landmark deal for downtown Wichita and the partners, which included Sedgwick County, and inspired not only a $12.3 million repurposing of the old Innes-Macy’s-Dillard’s store but also the construction of the $3.3 million downtown transit center and a $5.3 million parking garage.

“It provides an environment that addresses many human service needs in a single location, it provides the state with more efficient office space at a lower cost, and it is a tremendous boost to our community’s effort to redevelop the core area,” then-Mayor Bob Knight wrote in The Eagle in 1992.

One key argument for the centrally located building was its convenience to multiple bus routes for the state offices’ clients, many of whom are low-income. So it was surprising to read in Tuesday’s Eagle that a voluntary survey of 792 clients of the state Department for Children and Families found that less than 10 percent of them traveled to the office by bus.

Still, it’s hard to see state offices being as easy for clients and employees to reach at 47th Street South and Oliver, in a building under consideration that is served by one bus route, as they are downtown, a block away from the hub of 14 bus routes.

It’s also curious that the 120,000 square feet that DCF currently occupies, out of the Finney building’s more than 300,000 square feet, is considered inadequate, when the alternative site has just 100,000 square feet on two floors. And the state just moved Department of Labor offices into the Finney building last month – not something you’d expect if the facility were overstuffed.

To be sure, the status quo as described to The Eagle by Diane Bidwell, regional director of DCF, doesn’t sound like a good situation for clients or employees. It also seems poorly suited to the agency’s 2-year-old business model, under which clients may spend longer visiting the building but also leave knowing whether they will receive benefits. The lack of a lobby to accommodate 300 people, for example, may be hard to overcome.

But the Finney State Office Building is a partnership worth saving, and a marquee example of downtown Wichita as a place to work and do business.

Good for Mayor Carl Brewer for taking the city’s case directly to Gov. Sam Brownback last week, and for the ongoing conversations about how the Finney building can meet the state’s needs into the future.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman