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Wichita Business Journal: Bringing Life to the Arkansas River

Josh Heck

Reporter

Wichita Business Journal

Bringing life to the Arkansas River

SUBSCRIBER CONTENT: Jun 16, 2017, 5:00am CDT

Wichita has not had affiliated minor league baseball since 2007, but city officials are going to change that. Soon.

The city wants to spend more than $40 million to construct a new Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, with a Double-A or Triple-A minor league baseball team as the lead tenant.

City officials think affiliated baseball is a better product and draw for fans, and presents more opportunities to follow players as they develop. The National Baseball Congress World Series would also occupy the new stadium, along with the possibility of the National College Baseball Hall of Fame, which city leaders are trying to lure to Wichita.

The new L-D is the focal point of an intensifying larger effort to spur additional development along and near the Arkansas River through downtown, particularly along the west bank.

It’s the city’s No. 1 project, “without a doubt,” to improve the quality of life, Mayor Jeff Longwell says, with a minor league team in the stadium by 2020.

But much needs to happen between now and then.

“Our priority right now is engaging with ownerships and teams interested in relocating to Wichita,” says Scot Rigby, assistant city manager and director of development for the city of Wichita. “That has become our primary focus.”

The coming months will play a critical role in ensuring development efforts are maximized, city leaders say.

Rigby says much of the work associated with activating development along the west bank of the Arkansas River is happening behind the scenes.

Developing a request for qualification (RFQ) for stadium design also is high on the city’s priority list.

Rigby says late summer is the tentative release date for that RFQ. The number of companies that information will be sent to will be finalized in the coming weeks, he says.

The goal is for stadium design to take place during the latter part of 2017 through early 2018, with demolition of the existing Lawrence-Dumont Stadium starting about the second quarter of next year.

Rigby says an 12-to-18-month construction period would keep the city on track for opening the new stadium ahead of the spring start to the 2020 baseball season.

Wingnuts future

The push for affiliated baseball may mean the end of the Wichita Wingnuts independent baseball franchise.

It’s something Gary Austerman, a minority owner and attorney with Klenda Austerman LLC, has come to terms with.

He says city officials have communicated their intentions to pursue affiliated baseball, which would leave the Wingnuts out as the tenant for Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.

“We’ve given it a lot of thought,” says Austerman, who co-owns the Wingnuts with Steve Ruud and Nate Robertson. “We want the best for Wichita, No. 1.”

There is a possibility, however, having an affiliated team in Wichita could bring with it opportunities for local ownership.

The Wingnuts will continue to operate — likely for another season or two — in the event an affiliated team is secured until the new stadium is completed. The Wingnuts would play at another venue during construction, perhaps Wichita State University’s Eck Stadium.

Funding breakdown

The city is projecting $60 million will be generated from the expansion of a tax increment financing district and through the use of STAR bonds.

TIF districts capture sales tax revenue from a defined area and funnel it toward development costs. Tax rates do not increase in TIF districts.

Rigby says the city is anticipating about $40 million will be generated from the sale of the STAR bonds.

Of that, $30 million will be earmarked for the new stadium, with the remaining $10 million for waterfront improvements and a pedestrian bridge that connects the east and west banks of the river. City leaders envision something similar to what was constructed in 2007 near the Keeper of the Plains statue.

A portion of the $20 million expected to be generated from the TIF district will be allocated for parking and street improvements and a multi-use path near Second Street and McLean extending west toward Seneca. Rigby says $10 million to $12 million of that total also will be put toward stadium construction.

City and county leaders have voted to approve expanding the East Bank Redevelopment District — created in 1995 — to include Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and portions of the west bank of the Arkansas River. That effort also has won favor with the Kansas Department of Commerce.

The east boundary of the expanded TIF district runs along McLean from Kellogg north to Second Street and generally along Sycamore to the west.

The development efforts also were aided by legislative action. In May, the Kansas Legislature extended the sunset for STAR bond financing in the state for another three years.

Without that extension, the city would have had to place and sell its STAR bonds before June 30.

Now, Rigby says, the city can take a “better pace” to ensure everything is in line for the sale of the bonds. That sale will take place in the coming months.

Market driven

City Council Member Janet Miller says aside from the stadium, development within the expanded TIF district will be market-driven.

“As a city, we are not purchasing private property or telling (landowners and developers) what they need to do,” says Miller, whose district includes a portion of the westbank development district. “The vision is for it to be mixed use.”

That could include, Miller says, restaurants, retail or entertainment.

The expansion of the TIF district is a vote of confidence for other projects as well, such as that of Kansas City-based EPC Real Estate LLC.

The company is pitching a $40 million project that would include residential, office, commercial and hospitality to a Delano site generally located between Douglas and Second Street along McLean. The two sites are south of where the city’s Advanced Learning Library is being constructed.

“It was one of the hurdles that needed to happen,” says Mike McKeen, president and principal of EPC.

He and others are finalizing a developer’s agreement that is expected to go before the Wichita City Council in the coming weeks.

McKeen says one of the aspects his company is working through is how the EPC project fits into the financing equation within the TIF district.

EPC’s proposal calls for the construction of 180 apartments and an adjacent parking garage. McKeen says an agreement for a Marriott-affiliated hotel also has been secured, though he’s not yet offering specifics about which one. Some 5,000 square feet of commercial space also is included with the EPC proposal.

He’s optimistic construction will start on the EPC project this year. Work will take about two years to complete, he says.

“I think the city is putting the foundation and tools in place to allow good things to happen,” McKeen says.

Other projects within the TIF district include the city’s Advanced Learning Library, a $33 million facility under construction near the southwest corner of Second and McLean.

Just outside the TIF district, construction continues on the River Vista apartment complex slated to open next spring.

A relative unknown within the district is the property on the southwest corner of Douglas and McLean, the longtime home of the Metropolitan Baptist Church.

Miller says the church isn’t being asked to leave and is welcome to remain where it is.

Mason Lampkin, the church’s senior pastor, declined to comment for this story.

Business benefit

Existing businesses stand to benefit from increased foot traffic in the area along the river.

Milk Float, a dessert business located at 535 W. Douglas in the Delano District, is one example.

Owner Cliff Bragg says talk of further development along the Arkansas River and throughout downtown Wichita in general is bringing with it a newfound excitement about the city, particularly among young professionals.

Bragg grew up in Wichita and he, like many, have waited years for development to take off on the east end of Delano near the river. He says the effort is finally moving past the “potentiality” for development to projects coming to fruition.

“It’s starting to be realized,” he says.

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