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The Rebirth Of Wichita's Downtown

Click the image above for additional images of the Old Mill Tasty Shop and recent downtown projects. 

Redevelopment projects in downtown Wichita are growing--from converted warehouses in Old Town to new retail space along Douglas Street--community leaders are working to make downtown a destination for those both near and far, and the effort has been happening for some time.

When you walk into the Old Mill Tasty Shop in downtown Wichita, you’re walking into history. With white tile floors, a large marble top bar, and the occasional whirling of a milkshake machine, it’s the city’s original soda fountain shop. It’s been around since 1932 and has only changed hands once in that time. Otto and ErnaWoermke operated it for almost 50 years, and current owner Mary Wright remembers them fondly.

“I was in my early 30’s then, and my dad and would come downtown and swim at the YMCA,” she says. “We'd come over [to Old Mill Tasty Shop] and eat chili about twice a week. We got to know Otto and Erna…they were just sweet, darling people.”

Despite downtown’s regression in the sixties and seventies, the restaurant has remained a nostalgic focal point for the area. Wright and her husband John purchased it in the early eighties. She says that she couldn’t stand to see the establishment fade away. She put some newspaper up on the windows and began to fix it up.

Those who visited were happy to find that the downtown stalwart hadn’t changed a bit. Wright says she slowly understood that she wasn’t simply managing a place to eat.

“It was a commitment to the community, it was not to just this restaurant, if we were going to grow and prosper, we had to have an area to grow and prosper, too,” Wright explains.

It turned out that Wright wasn’t alone in wanting to keep a downtown landmark accessible to new generations. She soon found herself as a member of the Old Town Association, which was started in 1984.

At that time, the area was a graveyard for large, brick buildings once used for manufacturing. The group helped transform the industrial skeletons into modern living and retail spaces.

Mary Wright’s experience is similar to that of Ann Keefer, who currently works at Wichita Festivals, Inc., the company that puts on River Fest.

“I started with the original Old Town Association, which started out truly as a fan club. We were a bunch of young twenty something’s who came back [to Wichita]. Most of us had gone away to college at some point, or lived elsewhere,” she says. “We found ourselves coming back here and wanting an entertainment district.”

Ann Keefer

Keefer soon began volunteering her time to try and get people downtown, doing so for about twenty years. City leaders, as well as developers with deep pockets, also began to see the potential of downtown’s revitalization.

In 2002, Keefer began work with the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. Her official title was Director of Marketing, and what she was marketing was downtown itself. 

“I liked to describe it as feet on the streets, butts in seats, and heads in beds,” Keefer says. “It was about residential, it was about mixed development. We wanted people coming down for the arts and for culture, we wanted them coming down for events, we wanted them coming to restaurants. And eventually we wanted to see the return of a retail element.”

The current president of Wichita Downtown Development is Jeff Fluhr. He uses the city’s master plan to help breathe new life into the area. He describes the master plan as a blueprint for the city’s future, 20 years into the future. It includes new building development, transportation accommodations and green spaces.

Jeff Fluhr
Jeff Fluhr

“The things we’ve seen since the plan’s adoption in December of 2010, is that we’ve had a lot of activity in the residential market, we’ve had about 163 units from basically adaptive reuse of buildings, that have been completed and they’re occupied,” Fluhr says. “Right now we have a little over 200 units under construction, we have 400 that are in the queue. We’ve seen a little bit south of $250 million in private sector investment and about $42 million in public.”

Taxpayer expenses will include the renovation of a market street parking garage, and have already gone to help finance the development of the Ambassador Hotel. Adjacent to that is the privately funded Kansas Leadership Center, which marked the first new building along Douglas in nearly 40 years.

One leader of private sector development in Wichita is Jason Van Sickle. His first experience with redevelopment was the conversion of the old Wichita High School into apartments. He is now the president of the Old Town Association - the same one Mary Wright and Ann Keefer were a part of 30 years ago. He wants to better connect Old Town to other parts of downtown.

“Over the last 10 or 15 years, the Old Town Association has been approached by business on Douglass as far east as Hydraulic, as far west as Topeka and all around our area saying, ‘we want to be listed on your map and called a part of old town,’” Van Sickle says.

Jason Van Sickle

He explains that these businesses fit the general bill of Old Town; they’re historic, renovated buildings that have been updated for modern use.

“We're going to look into expanding what people consider Old Town, or what we formally define as Old Town. Because we have businesses that fit that identity and businesses that really want to be a part of what we're doing,” he said.

Other downtown projects in the works are the renovation of the Douglas Underpass, which carries the train tracks over Douglas and into Wichita’s Union Station. Many consider this the front gate of downtown Wichita. Ideas for the structure are abundant, but the first order of business is to remove the current inhabitants…pigeons.

On the opposite end of Douglas, you’ll find efforts concerning the Century II Performing Arts and Convention center. One of the defining shapes of Wichita’s skyline, decisions over whether to raze, or rehabilitate the structure are still ongoing. 

Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter, @SeanSandefur

This story originally aired on Morning Edition on April 11, 2014.