|By Bill Wilson, The Wichita Eagle,
Kan.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
July 15, 2011--Wichita's Project Downtown has landed its biggest public-private partnership, a $30 million four-star hotel on the site of the nation's first youth-led lunch counter sit-in that brought about widespread changes.
The Ambassador Wichita will be a 117-room boutique hotel built in the vacant building on the southeast corner of Douglas and Broadway that once housed Dockum Rexall Drugstore.
In that drugstore in 1958, Carol Parks-Haun, 19, and Ron Walters, 20, members of the NAACP Youth Council in Wichita, led a protest against lunch counters that denied service to black residents. Within a few weeks, all Rexall drug stores in the state changed their policies, and similar peaceful protests were staged across the country.
"This is such a vibrant downtown corner," said Wichita Vice Mayor Lavonta Williams, who also is the president of the local NAACP chapter.
"To have this corner alive again will bring everything downtown alive. And to be able to get this building ready and able for some of the participants in the sit-in to see is phenomenal."
A partnership led by Old Town developer Dave Burk and Tulsa boutique hotel developer Paul Coury will close on the Dockum building in August. The purchase price was not disclosed.
Their plans include the independent hotel, a 257-stall parking garage financed by the city, and a small public park. The garage and park are direct city public-benefit subsidies that must be approved by the city's 12-member public project qualification committee.
Renovation is slated to begin in September, with the hotel opening late in 2012.
Developers said this week they will seek other direct city incentives, including a community improvement district that would allow developers to charge up to 2 percent more for sales and use the extra revenue to offset project costs.
Also on the table will be the federal and state historic tax credits, the city's bed tax, and the potential use of the $8 million loan consortium established by 12 local banks to help fund downtown revitalization projects.
Burk said the parking garage will include about 8,400 square feet of retail space along William.
"The project meets a lot of the Goody Clancy criteria for the new downtown plan," Burk said.
"It sits on Douglas, it's a major building that's been vacant for 12 years, we're developing a lot of the block in the public-private partnership, we're developing retail along William and we're developing that east-west alley wall for walkability."
Coury was clear that the cost of such an extensive building renovation would be a deal-breaker without city incentives. The building has been vacant for 12 years since Slawson Cos. moved out.
"If I were mathematically underwriting this deal -- heads up, no incentives -- the rates would be $300" per night, Coury said.
Coury said the independent brand -- with hotels in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Fort Worth and one under construction in Kansas City -- will charge rates about 20 to 25 percent higher than the downtown hotel market.
"What's different is we're not going after group business," he said. "That's not to say won't do some group business, but what we will be is a business travel and social market hotel."
The hotel will be tailored to the architecture of its building, with unique furniture designed by Coury and the latest in room amenities.
"What I hope you check into our lobby and see is that it's charming and quaint instead of 100 people down in the lobby with name tags," he said.
"So because of that, the rates you're quoted aren't going to be that much higher than any other hotel. The reason we'll end up with a higher average is because we won't have that much group business."
The hotel will include a museum commemorating the Dockum sit-in, Coury said.
Williams said she wants to bring the surviving sit-in participants to the building's grand opening in 2012, along with national NAACP officials.
One of the surviving sit-in participants, Rosie Hughes, 89, said she's looking forward to the building's return to prominence downtown.
"It would bring attention to our history, as a reminder of what happened in Wichita in 1958," she said. "We don't have anything to remember the event by."
New Wichita City Council member Pete Meitzner agreed, calling the announcement an "incredibly positive step for downtown."
"It fills a major void downtown, and it takes a great historic building and turns it into a very attractive asset," he said.
Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or email@example.com.
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Copyright (c) 2011, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.
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