Arena boosts downtown

Expectations were unrealistically high for how Intrust Bank Arena might be surrounded by restaurants, nightspots and shops.
Expectations were unrealistically high for how Intrust Bank Arena might be surrounded by restaurants, nightspots and shops.

Ten years after Sedgwick County voters approved a $200 million downtown arena and nearly five years after it opened, the surrounding neighborhood remains a disappointment. But the venue’s arrival also has brought benefits, with more on the way.

Expectations clearly were unrealistically high for how the new venue might come to be surrounded by restaurants, nightspots and shops. Total tax appraisal for the area, discounting Intrust Bank Arena itself, has only risen by $35 million in eight years.

Save for the Commerce Street Art District to the south – which predates the arena and has flourished since its construction – the neighborhood is “still the same mix of light industrial businesses interspersed with numerous boarded-up buildings and vacant lots, dotted with ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs,” as Dion Lefler reported in the Sunday Eagle.

No one can know how much more private development might have occurred in a brighter economy. It probably hasn’t been a plus for potential development that a correctional work-release center remains kitty-corner from the arena – though county and arena officials said Monday it has not been a public safety issue.

And because arena events can be infrequent during some periods of the year, businesses nearby cannot rely on arenagoers. Their business model has to work year-round, even as it enjoys the boost that arena shows, hockey games and special sporting events provide.

But the shows that have played the Intrust Bank Arena and those booked for 2015 more than justify its existence, which has been great for Wichita’s quality of life even as it’s left audiences clamoring for more and bigger names. Last month the arena won the first and second rounds of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament – realizing one of the wishes on which it was built.

The arena gets a share of credit for the impressive progress of downtown redevelopment overall since 2010, as well as for the continued drawing power of the original Old Town district and the new restaurants and businesses that have popped up between Old Town and the arena.

The biggest benefit so far nearby promises to be the $54 million renovation of the historic Union Station into a mixed-used development, a project that broke ground earlier this month.

Meanwhile, members of the area legislative delegation should advance the city’s new effort, adopted last week as part of its legislative agenda, to protect the arena neighborhood’s cultural pioneers from onerous property tax increases and to encourage more arts activity via an arts district designation.

All in all, it is hard to argue that downtown would be better off without the Intrust Bank Arena or that the county instead should have renovated the Kansas Coliseum, especially because the latter’s bare-bones arena has been productively reinvented as a testing site for Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman