Eagle editorial: An end to an era at Finney State Office Building?

Hope is fading of keeping state agencies from moving out of the city-owned Finney State Office Building, despite the city’s generous offer to slash the rent and to spend at least $6 million on renovation. That’s frustrating.

Some negotiations have occurred since the state gave notice in March that it would vacate the building at 230 E. William when the lease runs out Sept. 30, 2014, including a July meeting of Mayor Carl Brewer and Gov. Sam Brownback. The city offered to cut the lease rate from $11 to $6 per square foot and committed to spend at least $6 million on an upgrade, while agreeing to a 50 percent space reduction for the state’s Department for Children and Families.

But in a Sept. 9 letter to the governor, Brewer wrote that Diane Bidwell, DCF’s Wichita regional director, had “clearly indicated she did not care to stay in the downtown area, citing security issues, parking access and the presence of sidewalk vendors and homeless citizens.”

That was despite crime statistics reflecting “the relative safety of an area that is in the heart of our urban community,” Brewer noted. The city also offered to work with the state to address any security issues.

And it should be noted that the clients and needs of the agency now known as DCF were central to the landmark 1992 deal that led not only to the $12.3 million invention of the old Innes-Macy’s store for state offices but also the nearby downtown transit center and parking garage.

No announcement has been made about a new site for DCF and its 500 employees. But the Kansas Department of Labor, a temporary Finney tenant, recently signed a lease in the former Ryan International Airlines building at 266 N. Main. The Eagle has reported that leases for the same property are in the works for two other Finney tenants, the Kansas Corporation Commission and Kansas Human Rights Commission.

At least the state isn’t entirely abandoning downtown Wichita amid its aggressive redevelopment push. Chuck Knapp, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Administration, told The Eagle editorial board Wednesday that the priority is to keep agencies other than DCF downtown.

Asked whether DCF can do better than a $6-per-square-foot lease rate and $6 million renovation, Knapp said: “The bottom line is, price is not the determining factor in where we place these agencies. We’re looking for space that will meet their needs and the needs of their customers.”

Needs change, and 20-year-old deals can’t be expected to last forever. But it’s hard to see the Brownback administration treat the city like just other landlord. And the day the Finney State Office Building has been emptied of nine state agencies and 700 employees will mark the regrettable end of an era and partnership – and leave many in Wichita wondering whether the state’s exit was really cost-effective or necessary.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman