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Wichita Rules Out Renovating Century II For Performing Arts

Deborah Shaar
Century II opened in 1969 to replace the old Forum and other deteriorated business structures along the riverfront. Now, Century II's future remains in question.

In a few months, the latest plan for developing downtown Wichita’s riverfront area will be released.

The details and recommendations are supposed to help guide the city to a final decision about the Century II complex. One aspect has already been decided: The city of Wichita has determined that it can’t transform the 50-year-old building into a modern performing arts venue.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
KMUW/File photo
Robert Layton began his role as city manager for Wichita in 2009.

City Manager Robert Layton says recent engineering work confirmed structural limitations that would make the renovation project too costly. As a result, he says the city ruled out that option for upgrading the performing arts facility.

“So now it’s a matter of let’s go ahead and determine how we build a new performing arts facility, and how is that prioritized from a financial standpoint,” Layton says. “And then decide, is it possible to reuse the round building.”

Layton’s recommendation to build a new venue is in line with what a citizens advisory committee suggested last February. After studying the issue for a year, the committee recommended the city build a new facility that “could support the current and future needs of performing arts organizations.” The committee did not offer an alternative use for the iconic blue-roof round building.

Layton says structural limitations might also affect plans to repurpose Century II.

“What's the cost of that in terms of what do you do to remodel it, and then what do you have to do for ongoing maintenance?” Layton says.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
Wichita's former Central Library on Main Street is vacant. Library materials moved to the Advanced Learning Library in June 2018.

While the citizens advisory committee was studying options for performing arts, the city was working on a plan to expand and upgrade the convention center. The city says it lost convention business in recent years due to current conditions at Century II and wanted to regain those economic benefits.

“All the work that's been done at this point shows that we need a new modern convention center space," Layton says. "So it's more, how do you fit it on the site? What amenities need to be there to support the facility? And how do you fund it?

"I think we're down to that."

Layton says the team came up with concept drawings and some preliminary cost estimates. Instead of moving forward, he put the city’s planning on hold last spring. That’s when the business community formed a committee to create a comprehensive riverfront design. The city manager says it made sense to include the Century II complex in that process.

"This is a final plan and trying to get community consensus on a final direction," Layton says. "We told them you cannot come up with new conclusions in any of the areas that we've already studied." 

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
The Arkansas River in downtown Wichita.

Business and civic leaders — not the City of Wichita — are now taking the lead on creating what’s called the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan. Representatives from the city and Sedgwick County are on the committee, and both governments contributed toward the $700,000 cost of the planning process.

Wichita Community Foundation President Shelly Prichard is one of the organizers.

"There’s no decision on Century II or the library or any of that space yet. That will come out in the planning process," Prichard says. "It obviously is the biggest question on the table. We’re waiting for the design team to figure out what makes the most sense for the entire space."

In the past decade alone, the city and its community partners invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies related to upgrading the convention center and the performing arts facility. More than a million went to master plans for Wichita’s growth.

The future of Century II factors significantly into the development of the east riverfront. The city-owned facility has a prime location near the Arkansas River yet failed to make the river an asset. Century II’s loading dock and energy plant obstruct the connection to the riverfront.

Project Downtown, a 20-year master plan for Wichita released in 2010, listed Century II and the east riverfront as “catalyst sites” with untapped opportunities. So far, nearing the halfway point of the master plan, no major improvement projects have moved forward.

The east riverfront last changed when the Hyatt Regency opened in 1997, and WaterWalk around 2000. Meanwhile, the new and improved west side of the Arkansas River is already taking shape. Crews are building a new baseball stadium that will open next year, and a retail district will follow.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
The new baseball stadium is expected to open next year on the west side of the Arkansas River.

Layton says momentum is finally building for a major riverfront overhaul.

"I think it's important we look at how those two—the west bank and the east bank—will work together," he says. "How do you make the connection? How do you make sure you don't duplicate on the east bank what is going to happen on the west bank in terms of the type of development." 

The committee says the riverfront plan being developed is expected to pull all the elements together: a performing arts center, a convention center, Century II, the former library, connections to the west bank developments and a distinctive riverfront gathering space.

The new plan might clarify next steps for Century II and the riverfront, but then comes the hard part: The city will need to decide if the projects are affordable, and how much investment is needed from the public and private sector.

Credit Deborah Shaar / KMUW
The east side of Arkansas River in downtown Wichita. The Hyatt Regency opened in 1997.

The candidate who is elected Wichita mayor in November will have a say on what action the city takes with riverfront development. Mayor Jeff Longwell and his challenger, state Rep. Brandon Whipple, recently shared their opinions on the issue of Century II during KMUW’s EngageICT mayoral debate.

Longwell says there’s an opportunity to develop the Century II complex and keep the blue-domed round building.

"I think we can build a new performing arts center slightly in a different place along that river corridor," he said. "I think we can repurpose Century II into a true community building and then also add in a new convention center."

Whipple didn’t offer an opinion about preserving or replacing Century II. Instead, he says that’s up to the public.

"We need to go and make sure that what we develop is acceptable to our community so that it is something that will be utilized by our community," Whipple said.

Both candidates say community input is the most important aspect in the riverfront planning process.

The Riverfront Legacy Master Plan committee has scheduled several community engagement opportunities before the plan is released early next year.

Committee member Darryl Kelly with W (formerly Young Professionals of Wichita) is like a lot of people who just want something done.

"I would say from a young professional’s perspective we are tired of plans and talking," he says. "So it’s time for action."

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.