By Angie Prather
Mark your calendars. Wichita’s official city flag turns 80 next year on National Flag Day, June 14. Six years ago, there weren’t many people who could pick out the Wichita flag from a lineup of municipal banners. Kyle Filiatreault, who manages the Abode Venue in downtown Wichita, recently estimated that on a scale of 1 to 10, “Wichita flag recognition was at a negative 3” when he started flying it in 2011 at his event venue located at 1330 E. Douglas.
Flag Revival Efforts Through The Years
There have been a number of efforts to inspire Wichitans to embrace the timeless flag design originally developed by Wichitan Cecil B. McAlister in 1937. A “Positively Wichita” campaign spearheaded by branding experts at Armstrong Chamberlin in 1990 incorporated elements of the Wichita flag in T-shirts, a poster, a music video and television commercials. Emprise Bank and KAKE-TV collaborated with the agency to increase awareness about the city’s unique symbol.
Local artist Chris Gulick remembers that the flag was only flown a handful of places in the community in 2003. It wasn’t even being flown over City Hall at the time. He worked with a number of area artists to bring the flag to the forefront, but he was told by officials, “People don’t understand it. They don’t know what it means.” Gulick had ornamental license plates printed with the flag, but said, “We couldn’t give them away.”
Fast forward to 2015. A resurgence of pride in Wichita started gaining momentum and the community’s unique flag became the logical rallying point. Filiatreault and Gulick agree that Wichita now has a full-blown case of flag fever and they rate Wichita flag recognition at a “10” in 2016.
Long-time community enthusiast Jon Rolph, President of SASNAK, is thrilled with the resurgence.
“Wichitans have been searching for a tangible way to show their connection to their city and each other,” he said. “The city’s flag is one of the most visible ways to demonstrate their pride.”
Rolph remembers when it took him nearly two weeks to locate a Wichita flag so he could take it on a Chamber-sponsored city-to-city visit to Pittsburg in 2011. At that time Henry Helgerson Co. was the only place he could locate a flag. Rolph also recalls that very few city and business leaders recognized it when he placed it on a podium during the trip to demonstrate his own Wichita pride.
It’s easy to find Wichita flags today in a variety of sizes and price points at area retailers like The Workroom, Wings of the Wind Kites & Toys, Henry Helgerson Co, and Seasonal Decorating. Wings of the Wind co-owner Susan Adams says she’s gone from selling one flag a month in 2014, to selling fifty per month in 2016. She stocks up for gift-giving occasions like Christmas and said the demand keeps increasing for new products, like the Wichita flag kite and desktop flags her shop now carries.
Retailers like The Workroom, Lucinda’s and Watermark Books offer unique items ranging from flag-imprinted socks to coffee mugs. Gulick loves the fact the new movement has helped fuel regional artists who are selling their flag-inspired creations online and at pop-up markets like the 2nd Saturday Artisan Market.
A Flag’s Resurgence In Popularity
Filiatreault points to an editorial by Chamber executive Angie Elliott that ran in the Wichita Eagle last year as one turning point in the flag’s visibility. He said he fielded questions about the flag daily when he started flying it at Abode in 2011. He noticed a sharp drop-off in questions after the editorial was published in 2015.
“Her article raised awareness about what the flag represented and she pointed out locations where people could see it,” he said. “We were one of those locations.”
He still fields the occasional question about what it represents, but the vast majority of people easily recognize it as the city’s official flag.
The renaissance in Wichita’s art, music and food scene has also accelerated city pride and interest in the city flag according to Filiatreault. He chaired this year’s Wichita River Festival and was pleased when elements of the flag were incorporated in the 2016 design for River Festival poster and button design.
Gulick said a number of groups who have been helping fuel the fire behind the flag’s popularity. He credits retailers, artists, community enthusiasts and businesses in the city’s core that choose to fly it daily, like the Labor Party, Abode, The Workroom and Hotel at Old Town. The downtown murals, courtesy of Douglas Design District’s Avenue Art Days and businesses like Doo-Dah Diner, that incorporate elements of the flag have also raised its visibility. Gulick contends that millennials who are spending more time in the core area of Wichita couldn’t help but learn about it and spread the word.
Is Flag Fever Sustainable?
Adams also credits millennials for reviving it as a city symbol and spreading flag fever. She doesn’t anticipate a decline in the flag’s popularity anytime soon.
“The young people are our future and the heart of our town,” she said.
She loves that people of all generations are using social media channels to show their pride in all the positive things happening in Wichita.
Like Adams, Courtney Sendall at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce believes that social media has accelerated the flag’s popularity and is helping to sustain it. She’s managed the @WichitaFlag social media accounts for over a year and has found only a few other municipal flags that have their own social media accounts. Sendall acts as the curator for ‘all things Wichita flag’ and is impressed with the creativity of the images she reposts on the accounts almost daily.
“It’s really grown in popularity and we’re reposting images from people who are doing everything from wrapping their car in a flag image to painting it on their mailbox,” she said. “It’s also keeping us connected to people who have moved away from Wichita. They’re taking it with them and we’ve posted images of the Wichita flag being displayed around the U.S.”
In fact, the very first image posted on the @Wichitaflag Instagram account was of a Wichita flag being flown in Colorado. The flag has also shown up in a few spots around the world and was most recently pictured in Italy, Iceland, New Zealand and South Korea.
Early Wichita flag adopters like Rolph, Gulick and Filliatreault are hopeful that Wichitans will continue to make the flag a highly visible part of the city’s landscape. Rolph believes that “it’s still gaining traction and trending upwards.”
An Important Rallying Banner
Flag vexillologists like Roman Mars have witnessed firsthand the importance of civic pride and a great city flag. Mars produced a TED talk on flag design in 2015 and shared that, “The marriage of good design and civic pride is something that we need in all places. The best part about municipal flags is that we own them. They are an open-source, publicly owned design language of the community.”
Nationally-known flag design expert Ted Kaye has a ready response for city leaders who tell him they have more important things to do than worry about a city flag: “If you had a great city flag, you would have a banner for people to rally under to face those more important things.”
Thanks to Cecil McAlister, Wichita has a memorable flag to rally under. It’s an important symbol of our pride in the people, experiences and places that make our city special. Most importantly, it’s a tangible reminder of our connection to each other and to our home.
Angie Prather is the vice president of community relations and investors for the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.