The Wichita City Council approved a ground lease agreement with King of Freight on the WaterWalk development on Tuesday in a 6 to 0 vote, making way for the freight service company to move into the old Gander Mountain building. King of Freight is getting the building in an agreement to create 400 net new jobs in the city with an average salary of $50,000. According to Wichita City Attorney Jennifer Magana, King of Freight has already signed a purchase agreement for the building but the city owns the land. The issue before city council was leasing the ground beneath the building. In reality the City Council grappled with what to do with an incentive driven development that had failed and how to repurpose it.
City Council members expressed excitement for the growth of King of Freight, but council members also expressed reservations about the agreement for a variety of reasons. At the heart of issues was frustration by sitting council members to claw back some of city’s investment while also maintaining development momentum in the area.
Councilman Brandon Johnson (District 1) expressed concerns that the development vision for the east bank of the Arkansas river, where the WaterWalk building stands, contrasts with the city’s vision for the west bank where the new stadium is going up.
“We will have a baseball stadium in March. We will have development going on on the east bank, we don’t know what that vision could bring to this site at this point,” says Johnson. “To me, if we tie our hands with this, that does take away a significant portion of the east bank planning opportunities for what could be there and we don’t know the long term plans for that building once that happens.”
The WaterWalk development has long been a point of contention for downtown development. When asked by Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh about just how much money the city was out on the WaterWalk development, City Manager Robert Layton mentioned around $1.7 million dollars. According to Layton as the agreement between the city and King of Freight is written there will be virtually no rent paid to city on the 10 year lease after development costs are subtracted. Layton went on to speak about King of Freight tenancy as a catalyst for development in the area but noted the city is a long way from recouping the millions lost.
“Will we get our total investment back? That is a great question. It’s very possible but it will be over a long period of time,” says Layton.
At another point during the meeting Mayor Jeff Longwell admitted, “Waterwalk has not been built out certainly nearly as successful as we would have liked to have seen happen, but we haven’t had much control over that.” Longwell continued, “The reality is we could probably if we wanted to try and keep someone out, but I don’t know we have the ability to bring someone in.”
Bryant Parker, with the law firm Klenda Austerman, is the attorney for King of Freight. He laid out the company’s need for space as the expectation to hire at a rate that outpaces their current office space and why the Gander Mountain building works for them.
“For someone as large as we are, it is difficult to find available office space in the size that we need that we are comfortable putting our employees in. And we have looked elsewhere throughout the city, but we really think that this is the one spot we’ve identified,” says Parker.
Layton noted that this may not be a permanent home for King of Freight and establishing a long term relationship with the company as they grow was important to the city.
“It is their intention to build a complex at some point and whether that is here in Wichita or someplace else, they will determine that as part of their long reach planning,” says Layton. “So the idea was to get some kind of commitment that this company would stay here for ten years and any growth that would occur would occur within our borders.”
Shortly before the unanimous vote by the council Mayor Longwell summed up the hesitancy of the council to get excited about the agreement, but noted it does get people to the area.
“I get it. We are all struggling a little bit with this. Is it the best use of the river? None of us like the way that building was oriented along the river corridor,” says Longwell. “I’ll argue that we need more density. We need more bodies. We need more opportunities. And this does lock them in to growing in Wichita.”