Urban Exploration, the next phase of the sales pitch for what to do with Wichita’s Century II convention hall took place on Tuesday and Wednesday on the east river bank. What was billed as a walking tour of the riverbank started with a 20-minute presentation encompassing what was wrong with Century II and briefly touching on the history of the land.
The tours were conducted largely by employees of Populous, the architectural design firm behind large, high dollar projects such as the 2012 London Olympic stadium and the under-construction new Oklahoma City Convention Center. The feel of tours was one of salesmanship; that there is trouble in this River City, a capital ‘T’ that rhymes with ‘C’ that stands for Century II. On Monday KMUW reported that the Wichita City Manager Robert Layton says the city “can’t transform the 50-year-old building into a modern performing arts venue.”
During the tour, Brian Smith, Senior Landscape Architect for Populous, asked attendees to envision the riverfront but then told them what he wanted them to think. “What if we started to reconceive this place in such a way that that ballpark went all the way to Old Town and felt like one piece and one city,” said Smith as he stood with the Arkansas River at his back.
A sticking point for many Wichitans is how the future of Century II was decided behind closed doors. During the walking tour The Sentinel attended, there was audible disagreement when a teardown of Century II was mentioned. At one point Celeste Racette, the daughter of one of the men behind Century II, addressed the reasons given why Century II needed to go.
“The deferred maintenance started in 2000. It was the city’s decision to stop repairing the round dome. What I heard tonight was that a lot of these things can be covered. You can fix the soundproofing, you can fix the elevators, you can fix the roof leaking. It just hasn’t been done.” Racette continued, “So why are you ignoring the fixes with deferred maintenance. I didn’t hear anybody address that. They are all fixable.”
The reply to Racette’s question was that it was “a good question,” by Visit Wichita President Susie Santos, but it was noted that none of four speakers (Santos, Jeff Fluhr with Downtown Wichita, and two Populous representatives) could answer the question because they aren’t city employees.
At no point during the walking tour was a price tag or cost mentioned. Though officials in the past have sidestepped questions of cost and won’t rule out a tax increase, the impetus on the walking tour was to get Wichitans to “dream big.”
Another reason for concern over price is the architectural design firm hired to do the study. Populous made its name as a sports design firm. They specialize in designs that are big, modern, and very expensive.
The push to ‘dream big’ along with recent headlines regarding a need to revamp the city water supply, and a series of editorials in the Wichita Eagle advocating for more funding for transportation means Wichitans could be being prepped for a big tax increase by a number of stakeholders.
Chase Billingham, an urban sociologist with Wichita State University and the author of the transit op-eds, spoke with the Sentinel by phone and noted taxes do not need to be raised if current funding is reorganized.
“If people are not willing to rethink the current spending priorities that we have then it could be the case that higher taxes are in order, and that’s a political decision.” Billingham continued, “To the best of my knowledge there is no plan in the works to raise peoples taxes for transit.”
As Fluhr said on the walking tour, the plans to change downtown have in fact been in the works awhile.
“This moment was envisioned about 10 years ago to do exactly what we are doing,” said Fluhr.