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A big call awaits on Century II in Wichita. Are council candidates clearly positioned to make it?

The fate of Century II, Wichita’s half-century-old performing arts and convention center, is one of the big decisions looming for Wichita’s City Council. But it’s a more recent set of choices involving a minor league baseball team that has sparked discussion about whether city officials are being transparent enough. Incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell and his challenger, Brandon Whipple, disagree on which matters more – the process or the results.

Should Wichita tear down the Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center or leave it standing, to await renovation or repurposing?

It’s a big decision, one that’s vexed the community for several years. So much so that the debate about what to do about the 50-year-old circular structure with its trademark blue roof has often overshadowed conversations about what goes on inside the downtown building, including how to best support the organizations and the people who present performing arts events and book conventions.

But with candidates staying largely out of the early campaign debate over the building’s future, it’s a recent controversy that is proving to be a dividing line between the two mayoral contenders, incumbent Jeff Longwell, 60, and his 37-year-old challenger, Brandon Whipple, who meet in the Nov. 5 general election.

An issue that’s driving voter discussions is the construction of a new ballpark built to attract a Triple-A baseball team, which came with a deal giving the team the opportunity to enliven the surrounding area as an entertainment district. But it isn’t so much the content of the deal that’s been a subject of debate – it’s the process surrounding the agreement.

In recent weeks, another transparency issue has risen to the forefront, based on reporting from The Wichita Eagle’s Chance Swaim. Referencing thousands of pages of documents it obtained through the Kansas Open Records Act, the newspaper alleged that Longwell steered one of the largest contracts in city history to his golf partners, friends and political supporters despite an 11-member city selection committee recommending a different contractor. The story has prompted an investigation by the county’s district atttorney and The Eagle has also reported about how the city has no policy or ordinance relating to gift limits or disclosure requirements for City Council members

Longwell contends the story misrepresented his influence and that he doesn’t make mayoral decisions based on relationships. He said the choice to award a contract to replace Wichita’s 80-year-old water treatment plant was a “team” decision involving the entire Wichita City Council and other city council members have defended their actions on the $524 million plant to treat drinking water.

But before all of that, came the situation with the ballpark. The story begins in early March of 2019, when the Wichita City Council was set to finalize a three-part deal to land the minor league team. The deal allowed the team’s owner and his development company to buy prime riverfront land near the ballpark for $1 an acre.

Proponents of the land deal tend to focus on the overall package: Wichita is getting a baseball village that can generate revenue through restaurants, a hotel and other developments. Opponents say developers should have had to pay market value for the real estate, which they say is worth between $750,000 and $800,000.

Longwell contended that the team wouldn’t come without this piece of the deal. That statement caught some residents by surprise, because the city had already demolished its 84-year-old stadium and approved starting on a new $75 million ballpark in November 2018. How could it be that a few months later there was a chance the team wouldn’t come if it couldn’t land a real estate development deal?

The revelation prompted a public backlash, centered on a lack of transparency and communication. The Wichita Eagle, which broke the news of the deal, opined on its editorial page that the “backroom deals need to stop.” Even some baseball fans who favored bringing in a new team found themselves talking about transparency.

If one comment embodied the sentiments of dissenters, it was that of Wichitan Donna Wirth, one of 31 people who addressed the City Council at a four-hour meeting in which city staff, team owner Lou Schwechheimer and George Laham, developer of land north of the ballpark, outlined plans for the project and surrounding areas.

“I think from all of these conversations, you can tell we don’t trust you,” she told the council. She repeated the phrase, pausing after each word – “We. Don’t. Trust. You.” – while looking from council member to council member.

“You have been working on this project for at least a year and a half, possibly longer. You have not involved the community in getting their ideas. Not only not involving us, but you’ve not kept us informed. So how can I trust even the information that I heard here tonight? We’re talking about having a partnership with an LP (limited partnership) organization, and we don’t even know who’s a part of that organization. What kind of due diligence is this?”

The meeting concluded with the council voting 7-0 to approve the deal, though several details – including who was behind the Wichita Riverfront LP development group – were still not publicly known.

Transparency vs. Results

The wooing of Wichita’s new team could have been water under the bridge by this year’s mayoral election campaign. After all, the deal was done, and by summer the stadium was being built and team names, ranging from the Wichita 29ers to the Wichita River Riders, were being floated to the public.

But then two of Longwell’s challengers posted strong numbers in the August primary. Longwell led the way with 32.1% of the vote. But Whipple and retired businessman Lyndy Wells combined to receive 51.3% of the primary votes, with Whipple besting Wells by fewer than 300 votes. Some saw a message in those results. (Update: Wells recently announced he’s running a general election write-in campaign to provide an option for voters dissatisfied with both Longwell and Whipple.) 

“I think campaigns create community conversations,”says Jon Rolph, the president and CEO of a Wichita-based restaurant group and co-chairman of the Greater Wichita Partnership. “When you look at the primary conversation, a lot of it was around process, transparency and communication. So I think there’s an opportunity for everyone on the City Council to take a look and say, ‘Clearly, the community is sending us a message. We need to listen and think about what we want to do in the future.’”

Whipple and Wells ran as change candidates, with Whipple replying to a Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce questionnaire by saying: “My top priority will be to change the culture of City Hall from a place for insider deals made behind closed doors to a transparent and professional body that is accountable to the people. I could name five examples of recent times when our mayor and the council pushed through seemingly pre-determined results, or inappropriately scheduled hearings and votes all to be blamed on staff.”

After the win, Whipple said: “By getting over half the votes combined, I think we showed that Wichita wants change.”

Yet Longwell calls much of the talk about transparency and the baseball deal “noise” brought on by opponents posturing before the primary. He says city staff and elected officials could have done a better job communicating to the public that they were still negotiating one element of a three-part agreement. He also says details of the negotiations could not be shared until the deal was ready to be voted on. Once the final deal was brought to the bench, he says, “I would argue we were fully transparent. We released every nauseating detail in various formats.”

 

Century II hosts a wide variety of events, ranging from candidate forums to symphonies. Candidates for Wichita’s mayor and city council posts have largely remained noncommittal on the building’s future in early campaign events this fall, shifting discussions about Century II’s fate to a public-private partnership mapping out the riverfront’s future and a historic preservation group rallying to keep the building.

He added that the release of details on the baseball deal was handled like earlier agreements struck with Cargill and Spirit AeroSystems – two major employers the city wanted to keep happy and growing – which raised no concerns about transparency. More important, he believes, nobody has complained about the outcome.

“What gets lost in this argument of transparency is the great deal that we made that serves this city very well and gives us a quality-of-life amenity that not only didn’t cost the taxpayers, but we’re getting $600,000 a year in rent versus $25,000 a year from the last team we had,” Longwell says.

In other words, what matters most is not the process but the outcome, a win for Wichita. Most candidates running this fall say that the City Council generally commands at least a moderate amount of trust from residents.

However, there’s far less agreement when candidates are asked if the council is well positioned to make important decisions about the city’s future, such as deciding the fate of Century II. Incumbents Becky Tuttle, the District 2 representative from east Wichita, and Bryan Frye, the District 5 representative from northwest Wichita, say the council is well positioned “to a very great extent” to make those choices.

Challengers in city races are less optimistic, saying that the council is only moderately or somewhat well positioned to make those choices.

When asked what they would do to maintain or increase the level of trust in city government, most candidates talked about increasing opportunities for engagement with social media, providing more notice to the public when making decisions and soliciting more citizen input.

Readers can view their full survey responses here.

A Different Process on the East Bank

Questions about the extent to which local government officials should try to deliver results versus trying to engage their constituents are hardly new. How much do residents really need to understand about the potential benefits, risks and costs of how their city attracted the owner of the New Orleans Baby Cakes? Aren’t some details just better handled by those in the know?

Certainly there are times when local officials need to create a trustworthy process to deal with big decisions, particularly when the community is facing a challenge that has profound technical and adaptive elements rather than being mostly technical in nature.

That might be one reason why the decision about what to do with Century II has unfolded far more deliberately than the baseball brouhaha. After all, it’s not easy to get a city of 400,000 people to focus on details that can sometimes be boring or hard to understand.

  • A laptop used for the slideshow at the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan public open house.
    About 300 people flocked to an open house in late July to take part in the process to develop the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan.

“But you can get 12 people to do it,” says Mary Beth Jarvis, who was asked by Longwell to lead 11 fellow Wichitans on the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee. Jarvis is best known as the head of Wichita Festivals, which puts on the community’s largest annual event, Riverfest, in and around Century II and the east bank of the Arkansas River. (She stepped down from that role after seven years this past summer.)

It was a diverse group with backgrounds ranging from banking and medicine to artists and facility managers. The members started working in early 2018 and spent hundreds of volunteer hours during the course of a year studying the performing arts component of the building.

They gathered feedback from current Century II tenants and users, looked at solutions in communities of similar size, reached out to hundreds of residents for input and scoured multiple studies done over the last eight years – a stack of reports that stood about 10 inches tall.

Jarvis says the committee “dove into the 10 inches of detail so everyone didn’t have to, because they won’t. The 12 of us worked so hard so that our fellow citizens could trust that we were objective, thorough, open-minded, solution-oriented and without an agenda. So that our recommendations and our stewardship of those recommendations going forward could be relied upon.”

While she wouldn’t say that the ballpark project hadn’t offered transparency, she would say that a volunteer advisory board offers a more compatible way for the average person to access and process information.

At the end of February 2019, the group presented a four-point recommendation: Build a new, distinctive performing arts center in the river corridor. Within 60 days, start the process of seeking proposals for site selection and concept development, including a holistic approach to the east bank that considers what to do with Century II and other elements for the river corridor, such as convention space and gathering spaces. Support efforts to explore funding options. Continue to give residents a voice in the process.

“We put forth a recommendation that if followed would be a meaningful step forward. It’s bold in its vision, it costs less than remodeling Century II and it sets forth some fairly quick timelines that address the sense of urgency that we as a committee believe is important,” says Matt Michaelis, chairman, president & CEO of Emprise Bank and a member of the committee.

The group purposefully did not broach the subject of what should happen to Century II, Jarvis says.

“Why would you ask a community if they want to get rid of an icon, yet you’ve given them zero vision for what they would get in return?” she says. “So despite the fact that folks would tell you we’ve been talking about this for a long time, we really haven’t provided a vision, not even a back-of-the-napkin sketch, that could be legitimately considered as an alternative.”

Taking the fate of Century II off the table shifted the focus from what was best for the building to what was best for the organizations and the people inside the building as well as the community. Residents would get the chance to weigh in on the fate of Century II. Within 60 days of the recommendations, a private-public group, the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan, formed to fund and guide taking those ideas to the next step – planning and designing.

About a month before the Citizens Advisory Committee made its recommendations, a yearlong community engagement process called Project Wichita announced its 10-year regional vision and action plans based on data from more than 249 focus groups and 14,000 survey respondents. Retaining and attracting talent to the region emerged as a top priority, and thousands of people talked about the significance of the river to Wichita’s quality of place. The project was organized by the Greater Wichita Partnership, an organization that aligns economic development efforts.

That data, combined with the newest research and analysis of Century II and the performing arts, convinced boosters that the east bank needed to catch up with the west bank’s development plans. Also a pedestrian bridge to connect the two was being proposed with the ballpark village design, and organizers wanted its placement to make sense for both sides of the river.

  • Wichita mayor candidate Brandon Whipple at a mayor forum in Century II.
    Mayoral candidate Brandon Whipple survived an August primary to get on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

“The timing was right to have a master plan, to look at how it all works together,” says Rolph, who is co-chairman of the Greater Wichita Partnership board. “You can’t do each project independently of each other. The east bank is going to be a better final product if you look at how it all relates and how it stimulates downtown to the maximum effect from an economic perspective and a quality of place perspective.”

The Riverfront Legacy Master Plan group includes public and private members. It raised $700,000 – $200,000 of that being public money – to hire a three-firm team led by Populous, a Kansas City-based international design company specializing in arenas, stadiums and other large venue spaces, along with a real estate company and a landscape architecture and urban design group.

The planning process started with a July 31 open house so the public could meet the team. The group had plans for public exploration tours, dubbed walkshops, through the east bank buildings and outdoor spaces in September. In late November, the coalition expects to unveil designs to spur discussion, with presentations of a final plan in early 2020.

Transparency is used frequently when describing the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan process, but Rolph says that isn’t a reaction to what happened on the west bank.

“I think there were lessons to be learned for everybody, though, and we don’t need to pay the tuition twice,” he says. “We just designed our process this way because we need a product that people believe in, and we want them to believe in the process. This is a community conversation. Let’s see it; let’s hear it. You’ll know how we got from A to B, whatever B ends up being.”

  • The WaterWalk area near Century II in Wichita.
    The downtown riverfront is considered fertile ground for development.

But that hasn’t stopped opposition from bubbling up to the Riverfront Legacy effort. A group partially led by Celeste Racette, whose father helped get Century II built, has formed to counter what they worry is an effort to tear down a Wichita icon.

Her involvement was spurred in part by an incident in which she was asked by an event organizer to stop showing historical pictures and documents of Century II she’d brought from her late father’s collection.

Most candidates aren’t being specific about where they stand on the fate of Century II, emphasizing that the community needs to have a role.

But Longwell did say in a September debate with Whipple that he would like to see Century II repurposed into a community building anchoring a park as Wichita builds new performing arts and convention centers.

If “you’re letting me wave my magic wand and decide exactly what that looks like, I think there’s a win-win solution for it.”

For those who suspect the decision has already been made on Century II, Rolph says that’s not the case. He invites anyone to come to a monthly meeting of the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan group and hear the partners working through solutions.

“Change is coming, and this is a once-in-a-century opportunity that we want to make sure we do right and that people feel like they have a voice in,” he says. “There are still going to be people who don’t get their way, but they need to know they have a voice. As we’re looking at these decisions, we can’t be afraid of tough conversations or let fear keep us from moving forward boldly.”

But at some point a decision will be made, and as they talk to candidates and go to the polls, Wichitans ought to give some thought not just to what decision they want to see, but also how they want the big decisions to be made.

Journal Fall edition cover

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit  https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.

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