What does quality of life in Wichita mean to you?
It’s a grab bag. Different strokes for different folks. What you deem as a quality-of-life component might not be a viewpoint your neighbor has. Or your spouse.
Wichita mayor Jeff Longwell is a quality-of-life kind of guy. He sees myriad opportunities to improve the way we see and think about ourselves.
But makeovers cost money and that’s where quality of life can get tricky. Which funds go where and how many people get ticked off in the process?
One of my top quality-of-life desires is for a more-sparkly Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. I love baseball and I have a history of going to that ballpark for more than 50 years, first as a kid with my dad and later as a reporter and columnist to cover the teams that have played there.
But L-D is more than just a selfish whim, it’s a community jewel. It sits on the west bank of the Arkansas River and the view of Wichita’s skyline from its grandstand is unparalleled.
But there’s a problem with Lawrence-Dumont. It’s old. And it needs a major renovation, one that would cost millions of dollars if done right.
Improvements have been made over the past several years – a new turf field, expanded dugouts, better concession areas.
Lawrence-Dumont, though, needs more. Restrooms are in disrepair, team clubhouses are outdated and sky boxes don’t attract the kind of corporate dollars they should because they’re old and there aren’t enough of them.
Longwell, Wichita’s mayor for just a few months, is also a big Lawrence-Dumont Stadium guy. And he sees the need for vast improvements to the old ballpark, which has been around in several forms since the mid-1930s. There are days when it smells like it – yes, L-D needs some new pipes, too.
“Everybody wants money and money is tight,” Longwell said. “My argument is that if we focus on quality of life, that’s going to set us apart.”
Longwell doesn’t buy into the notion that a brand new ballpark should be built somewhere closer to downtown Wichita’s core. He’s more of the opinion that the downtown core needs to creep closer to the Arkansas River, which he still thinks is under-utlized after all these years.
“We need to make sure we look at all of these potential opportunities and try not to judge by our own personal likes,” Longwell said. “And ask, instead, what the community needs.”
Somewhere at or near the top of the list, Longwell believes, is an improved Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which houses the 81-year-old National Baseball Congress World Series as well as the Wingnuts, an independent baseball team in the American Association.
Lawrence-Dumont, Longwell believes, could be more. He would like to see concerts at the ballpark and a restaurant, open year-round, beyond the outfield fence in left field.
It’s time to get moving on this. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium has been becoming more and more of a sore spot for years. And while the patchwork improvements have helped, it’s still an old ballpark that feels and looks like an old ballpark.
“We need to fix the bathrooms immediately,” Longwell said. “If we’re going to do this right, I don’t know that it needs to be $50 million. I don’t know what the magic number is but I think the place can be renovated fairly reasonably cost wise.”
Longwell envisions the area around Lawrence-Dumont continuing to be developed and cites a new public library at 1st and McLean as a facility that will increase traffic into the area.
He can imagine Lawrence-Dumont as a centerpiece project for a new downtown, one that thrives near the river.
“We’ve been able to keep the ball rollilng at the ballpark with some of the projects we’ve done,” Longwell said. “To find the money to totally re-do the sky boxes like they should be done, and to add some seats and a new office and new clubhouses – that’s going to take a little more work, a little more heavy lifting.”
The longer we wait, though, the heavier the lifting is going to become.
If Wichita is to ever have another opportunity to attract affiliated minor-league baseball back to town, a renovated ballpark is a necessity. In cities across the country, citizens and leaders have made baseball stadiums a priority. They are a gathering place for families and a source of civic pride.
Several times during my interview with Longwell, he made it a point to express his desire to reach out to as many people as possible with his quality-of-life platform. He would like for every Wichitan to feel as if city leaders are taking their interests to heart.
Baseball and Lawrence-Dumont, though, are clearly close to Longwell’s heart.
“The city owns that baseball stadium,” he said. “We have an obligation to ensure that it is a safe, comfortable, great place to enjoy baseball and there are things we need to do to get there. You could have one of the best baseball parks anywhere.”
If that happens, my quality of life gets a whole lot better. And I think a lot of people would feel the same.