Twenty-four years is a long time.
So long ago that when Wichita, the city, last made an appearance on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s largest stage, I was watching in my college dorm, cheering on my favorite team, 900 miles away in Michigan.
What I knew about Wichita, a place I had never visited, in a state I’d never been to, was pretty much nil. This naïve 19-year-old (who still had hair) couldn’t have told you anything about the aviation business that made Wichita famous or that a Shocker wasn’t something that warned against electrical surges.
All that changed a couple of years later when I first visited the city. Wichita was in the process of adding a towering hotel to its skyline and change seemed in the air.
I moved here the next year – the perfect time to do so.
In the 20 years I’ve lived in the Air Capital, Wichita has faced many challenges and has drawn upon its pioneering, get-it-done spirit to address them.
Progress in the Heart of the City
This week’s NCAA tournament represents a great opportunity to reflect on the city’s progress. A visitor who came to the Kansas Coliseum in 1994 wouldn’t recognize the town. Even one who was here a decade ago wouldn’t.
Seeing banners around Wichita welcoming fans to the greatest American sporting event should swell our hearts with pride.
The downtown INTRUST Bank Arena replaced the outdated and poorly designed Coliseum eight years ago. Without it, we wouldn’t be in the running for this tournament, or the one that follows in 2021. Numerous concerts would’ve skipped Wichita, and thousands of would-be visitors might never have spent a dollar in our city.
Let’s not forget the arena hosted the NCAA women’s tournament in 2011, posting the highest attendance for a completely neutral site that year. Wichita State has made the arena a second home, and we proudly turn the town purple every other year for the Kansas State Wildcats. The top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks make their arena debut this week.
ICT Makes a Dazzling Impression
Many of this year’s visitors will fly into Eisenhower National Airport’s still-gleaming new terminal. They’ll be greeted with outstanding amenities and a colorful array of installations, teaching the vast and rich history of Wichita’s unmatched place in aviation. The city produces more airplanes – almost 300,000 to date – and offers more highly skilled aviation workers than any city on the planet.
Downtown’s transformation will astonish.
Wichita’s locally designed flag recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, but its radiant red, white and blue design has never been more popular or omnipresent. Still-in construction projects, such as Cargill’s Old Town headquarters and the Advanced Learning Library on the river, complement complex restoration, returning buildings such as the Union Station and the Ambassador Hotel to their architectural glory.
Dine Well, Explore More
Residents come to visit businesses nationally recognized for their food, drink or atmosphere. Looking for the state’s best beer bar? Or its top barbecue? Come to Wichita. And there’s no way that the Doo-Dah Diner won’t have lines out the door this week, as national broadcasters continue to lavish it with praise.
Wichita’s craft beer scene has exploded, with Douglas Avenue serving as the main connector between Central Standard Brewing, the Hopping Gnome, River City, Third Place and Aero Plains. Food Network star Alton Brown has called Wichita “one of my favorite coffee towns in the United States.” He frequently visits Reverie Coffee. NCAA attendees should, too. It’s close by on east Douglas and just expanded into a new space with food, adult beverages and a bakery.
The unique flavors and atmospheres at Tanya’s Soup Kitchen and The Donut Whole helped spur a previously neglected section of Douglas.
Bike shares, dedicated bike lanes and free trolley service make getting around downtown easy and convenient. The Old Town entertainment district, in its infancy a quarter-century ago, now thrives with live music, movies and restaurants. Each June, a revamped Riverfest entertains crowds with a diverse concert lineup. More than 15 years strong, the Tallgrass Film Festival draws cinephiles from across the country.
The museums on the river, including Exploration Place, the Mid-America All-Indian Center, the Wichita Art Museum, an expanded Botanica and Cow Town offer family-friendly off-day destinations. The Keeper of the Plains, the city’s iconic symbol, stands higher than in 1994. It’s the perfect vista for tourists and locals alike to see the city skyline. An $18 million riverbank project added a dedicated plaza at the confluence of Wichita’s two rivers.
Here in the Douglas Design District, Wichita’s artists have painted murals throughout the area, showing off our city’s creative talents. Even Kellogg – despite the jokes we make about its perpetual construction – is a vastly improved artery of traffic for visitors.
Celebrating All of Wichita
The positive changes aren’t limited to downtown. Another 1,000 words could be written on our newest cultural landmark, Mark Arts, or Wichita State’s Innovation Campus.
And is there a more welcome noise than the roar of a B-29’s engines overhead as Doc returns to active duty as the city’s greatest ambassador?
As we roll out the red carpet this week to our new friends from Lawrence, Ann Arbor or Houston, take a moment to appreciate where we’ve come as a city and where we’re going.
Maybe some of these visitors will be proud to call Wichita home by the next time NCAA hoops returns. I plan to be here cheering on the teams – and my adopted hometown.