This article was originally published in the Wichita Business Journal on September 18, 2015

Downtown Wichita: Residents Wanted

by Josh Heck

Cindy Claycomb would love nothing more than to have a Trader Joe’s in downtown Wichita.

The downtown resident and director of WSU Ventures at Wichita State University is among those pushing for the Charlotte-based company to open a store downtown, saying a neighborhood grocer would add convenience for people who live and work in the city’s core and help bring more people to the area. A Facebook page, “Wichita needs a Trader Joe’s,” aids the lobbying effort.

Problem is, downtown Wichita isn’t close to the number of residents it needs to lure and sustain a grocery store and influx of new commercial development, residents and stakeholders say.

“The market will tell us,” Claycomb says. “We are obviously not there yet because most of the development we’re seeing is residential.”

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., says a population base of 5,000 people — equivalent to the population of Goddard and almost three times the 1,800 that live downtown now — is typically the tipping point at which a larger volume of commercial activity is spurred, though pockets of commercial development are already happening throughout downtown.

Fluhr says efforts are happening simultaneously to create greater connectivity, additional opportunities for people to live downtown and have access to more services.

“There’s not a silver bullet,” Fluhr says. “There’s not one thing that can be done. It has to be done on multiple fronts, and that’s what we are doing.”

A lack of a grocery store is an oft-cited complaint among downtown residents and stakeholders, including 68 percent of respondents to an unscientific Wichita Business Journal survey.

It’s a chief concern for downtown resident Steven Wells, a project manager at Key Construction Inc. He and other downtown residents want more service-oriented and entertainment options in the city’s core.

Some would like to see more restaurant and shopping options.

But he understands this is a movement that is happening gradually.

“You’ve got to get the people there first,” he says.

Ripe for development

Opinions differ on whether downtown Wichita has reached the tipping point where commercial activity becomes more prevalent, but stakeholders agree the city’s core is ripe for development. And the best may be yet to come, they say.

“I think we’ve just passed that point and we’re truly into a boom in downtown development,” says Jason Van Sickle, an apartment developer and president of the Old Town Association. “What we are seeing is a culmination of 30 years of Old Town revitalization, 15 years of work by the WDDC and the efforts of dozens of developers coming together to create a vibrant downtown.”

He says a mix of private developments and public-private partnerships are helping drive downtown development.

The area of St. Francis from Douglas to Third Street, Van Sickle says, is a good example of downtown revitalization at work because abandoned buildings are being transformed into places of business. “Things are really moving now,” Van Sickle says.

Business owners say downtown is becoming a major population center in Wichita.

Warren Tandoc, who co-owns two Espresso To Go Go locations downtown with his wife, Ann, says the growing availability of downtown buildings that include a mix of commercial and residential space increases entrepreneurial opportunities.

“This is the prime opportunity to get a brick and mortar operation in an area that is coming back to life,” he says.

Shannon Boone lives and works in The Lux downtown as the owner of Stay Chic Events & Design. The building, at 120 E. 1st Street, has commercial space on the first and second floors.

Boone says the mixed-use model downtown places people closer to services.

“It’s a convenience factor for people who live and work downtown,” she says.

Downtown, she says, is primed for more residential and commercial development in the coming years.

Rooftops bring retail

Developers are chasing that downtown population base by infusing hundreds of new apartments into the market.

Five years ago, city leaders and downtown stakeholders got serious about a creating a downtown revitalization plan to serve as a blueprint for development. Boston consulting firm Goody Clancy compiled that plan.

Since then, 428 downtown apartments have been added, according to WDDC data. Another 812 units are under construction or in the planning phase. That’s in addition to the 1,319 market properties in existence prior to Project Downtown.

And the Goody Clancy plans show market potential for another 1,500 to 1,600 to be added in the next three to five years.

Downtown apartments are being leased almost as soon as they are available, developers say. The strong demand is an indication the revitalization effort is headed in the right direction and more commercial activity is on the way.

“We’re much stronger today than we were two or three years ago,” Fluhr says.