By Scott Elpers
Live in Wichita long enough and it’s difficult to ignore the divide between the east and west side of the city. Whether the two sides of the Air Capital intend to or not, growth and prosperity have become a battle between which side can one-up the other between Wichita’s two polarizing directions.
As Wichita continues to expand east and west - with every new chain restaurant and box store - a new movement in downtown Wichita has begun building momentum as the centerpiece to bring the city back together again.
It’s been four years since Fidelity Bank began its Bravely Onward campaign inspiring Wichitans to be proud of Wichita again.
“We looked around and thought there aren’t enough people around with this type of message about Wichita,” said Aaron Bastian, a fourth-generation president at Fidelity Bank. “We felt like we could truly make a difference by putting this type of message out there.”
Bravely Onward came on the heels of Boeing’s announcement to close its Wichita plant. Coleman had already packed up its gear and left.
Wichita needed a battle cry.
“It hit people in a way you wouldn’t imagine,” Bastian said. “It’s incredibly important for me, no matter where you live, to be proud of where you’re from. Everyone wants to be proud of their home town. It’s great to see that momentum building quickly in the right direction.”
Bravely Onward’s message resonated strongly across Wichita. The doom and gloom, especially in downtown, is now replaced with the optimism surrounded by constant construction.
Substantial planning has been the cornerstone of Wichita’s downtown development. A new master plan was adopted in 2010. Since, 67 projects in downtown Wichita have been completed or are currently under construction. Another 11 could begin in the near future.
“I think the next two to five years are going will be really dynamic for downtown Wichita,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. “What we have seen since 2010 is a half-billion dollars worth of investment, either completed or well underway right now.”
“It’s inspiring. I am one of those people that seeing change makes it real,” Bastian added. “The potential is so high for where we are going. Here in Wichita, we’re entering on something close to the ground floor and are starting to experience this huge growth and appreciation of the downtown area.”
Bastian, a Wichita native who recently returned to the city less than two years ago after spending the last decade in Oklahoma City, celebrates Wichita’s emphasis on remodeling and repurposing existing buildings in downtown.
The long-vacant Exchange Place in the heart of downtown is full-steam-ahead on a dramatic overhaul. Union Station continues to add tenants and complete construction phases.
Fidelity Bank, which started as a small mortgage company in the 1940s, took on an extensive renovation of a downtown building that had seen better days. Fidelity built its downtown headquarters in the late 1980s, then purchased the former Wichita Carnegie Library building next door. The building, which served as Wichita’ main library until 1967, originally opened in 1917 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The goal was to return the Wichita Carnegie Library as close to its original state - inside and out - as possible.
“To be able to take something and restore it to its former grandeur and glory is really exciting,” Bastian said. “There is nothing else like it.”
Fidelity continues to expand its downtown footprint, and sees other businesses doing the same.
“We have been downtown as long as I’ve been alive, and then some,” Bastian said. “There is a lot more growth to come, especially as far as people living downtown. I think there is room for more. The vacancy level down here is really, really low. As that grows, I think you are going to have a lot more businesses moving back to downtown, with their employees already living downtown.”
More than 400 residential units have been completed in downtown since 2010, with another 800 units under construction right now.
“The market potential is growing and we’re nearing 100 percent occupancy,” Fluhr said. “Literally, as soon as we are building this, it’s getting occupied.”
Live, Work & Play
Suzy Finn has a special connection with downtown Wichita that brought her back to her roots after spending eight years in other major cities across the U.S. Originally from Wichita, Finn spent four years living in downtown Milwaukee during college, then another four years in Washington D.C.
“I wanted to come back and be part of making Wichita a great place to live,” Finn said.
Finn has been with Young Professionals of Wichita for six years, including the past three years as executive director. Her office is located downtown, which isn’t far from her the loft on Commerce Street.
“There’s a lot of character down here, especially with what the developers have done to keep the feel of old downtown, but make them new and modern,” Finn said. “It doesn’t look like you are wandering around a downtown that has all been built in the last 10 years, even though a lot of the development has happened recently.”
Finn’s home for the past eight years originally housed her grandparents’ distribution business for nearly four decades. The former warehouse was developed into apartments and commercial space near the completion of Intrust Bank Arena, which sits a few blocks to the north.
“It’s also where my parents met,” Finn said with a smile.
For the past six years, Finn has watched downtown Wichita blossom around her. A pet peeve of Finn’s is when she hears someone say there isn’t anything to do in downtown Wichita.
“There is always something going on. It’s getting to the point where you have to choose between which cool thing you want to do, versus having nothing to do,” Finn said. “It’s been great to see that.”
A Diverse Community
Living among the high-rise buildings of downtown and the brick streets of Old Town isn’t just geared toward a generation of Millennials.
“Downtown is creating so many options, from Millennials to Baby Boomers,” Fluhr said. “We have a very broad base in what we are seeing with residential and commercial development. There are plenty options down here.”
As downtown Wichita continues to grow, so does its diversity.
“It’s not just one small segment of the population that wants to be down here,” Bastian said. “Everyone wants to be a part of this. If we weren’t succeeding in growing and making downtown a special place, you wouldn’t have that type of diversity.”
Robyn Wells, owner of Uniquities on north Rock Island, moved to Old Town two years ago with her husband, Dave Wells, when they became empty-nesters.
Dave, president of Key Construction, has been instrumental in the recent downtown redevelopment, including the Old Town building they currently occupy in their one-of-a-kind, two-story loft.
Wells’ loft has its own Wichita history. A light fixture above the staircase was designed from old exterior wall lights from the 17-story Allis Hotel, which was the tallest building in downtown Wichita during the 1930s. The Allis Hotel was demolished in 1996. Wells acquired five lights from the Allis Hotel, turning four into a large 600-pound light fixture, then used the other as a light at her front door.
Much like Key Construction focuses on taking old Wichita property and making it new again, her business does the same with antique furniture. She travels to flea markets and estate sales across the country, finding unique items for her shop, which opened in October.
“We’re not you grandma’s antique store,” she said.
Her green front door of Uniquities is just feet from the front door of her home. Dave’s office isn’t far away.
“We work, play and live down here. My car hardly has any miles on it. We can throw a rock to all of the places we spend most of our time at,” she said. “I love everything about living downtown. There is so much to do here.”
A Vibrant Future
A large map marking construction projects that have been completed, are currently under construction, or have plans for future development spans across a large wall in the office of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, which is housed on the ground level of the Eaton Place building on Douglas Ave.
Much like the Eaton, downtown Wichita’s geographic location in the center of the city has spurred growth in recent years.
“There always seems like there is activity going on down here. Its central location seems to pull in a lot of people, giving us a unique opportunity,” Fluhr said. “When I first moved into Wichita, the conversation was the east and west dynamic. With Wichita, downtown has that central component.”
What’s made downtown’s growth successful since 2010 has been its steadfast dedication to market research. What the people want, they get. The goal - much like Old Town - is an even approach to commercial and residential development, with the idea they complement one another.
“There is a cohesiveness that’s happening in our downtown. You no longer have areas that are epicenters of activity,” Fluhr said. “You are starting to see different areas connecting everything together, and doing it in a way where it naturally flows.”
As downtown continues to develop, Old Town has begun to flow into the area surrounding Intrust Bank Arena. Downtown’s development along Douglas Ave now connects new construction along the Arkansas River. Going east, the Douglas Design District leads in a direct path to College Hill.
“All of those complement each other. The more residents you get in the core, the longer restaurants and hospitality and commercial business will be open,” Fluhr said. “There is always an audience.”
Commercial growth continues to climb with the addition of two hotels since 2010. The Kansas Leadership Center is the first new build on Douglas in nearly 40 years. Development along the Arkansas will make it a destination for Wichitans outside of a small span during Riverfest.
“If you look at a development map, it’s a complete mosaic over downtown Wichita,” Fluhr said. “If people increase their excitement about their community, their boldness also increases. We can have that here. We continually elevate our conversation of what is possible in Wichita.”