On the surface, the big news came in May, when Cargill announced it would turn down lucrative financial incentives from other communities to keep its 800 jobs in Wichita.
Huge news for a community that had been bleeding aviation jobs since the 2008 recession set in, and the biggest win in the economic recovery.
But a week ago, the nation’s largest privately held company made an equally big announcement, first reported by the Wichita Business Journal, that they will build their new headquarters on the site being vacated by the downsizing Wichita Eagle at 825 E. Douglas.
It’s a decision that is reverberating through the Wichita economic development community, a vote of confidence that the recovery is well under way.
It’s a decision that pushes a major goal of Wichita officials - turn Douglas into the economic heartbeat of Wichita’s downtown - far down the road.
It’s a decision certain to re-energize the Old Town economy, since those 800 workers are going to need somewhere to eat, play and live.
It’s a decision certain to add momentum to Cargill’s neighbor to the west, Union Station, as developers prepare to lease up the train station terminal.
And it’s a decision that sends a message to Wichita companies and prospects: The Air Capital is open for business.
Cargill’s headline-making decision was welcomed by those with a stake in the city’s core.
“It’s one of the more exciting things to happen in downtown in long time,” says Patrick Ahern, an advisor with NAI Martens who specializes in downtown office properties.
The impact of the company’s decision to move to Old Town was trumpeted even by those who — at first glance — lost out on the deal.
Developer Gary Oborny, CEO of Occidental Management, says his Union Station site just to the west of Cargill’s chosen new home was the runner-up in the selection process.
But with those 800 workers moving in right next door, Oborny says the company’s new local headquarters will still have a big impact on not just Union Station, but on all of the surrounding area.
“All we cared about was that Cargill would hopefully make a choice downtown,” he says.
From nearby restaurants and retail shops — including those in Union Station — to the impact on future development moving south and to the west toward the arena, Cargill’s presence will have a dramatic effect.
As downtown development initiatives elsewhere across the country have shown, Oborny says, it’s all about density.
“Anytime you can increase density downtown, then the vibrancy and sales-per-square-foot start to rise,” he says.
Jason Van Sickle, developer and president of the Old Town Association, thinks the impact will go beyond the added boost to other nearby businesses.
“It’s not just the people it’s going to bring and the importance of that business in Old Town,” he says. “That location is really important, too.”
Van Sickle thinks Cargill will play a vital role in continuing the migration of Old Town boundaries south of Douglas.
“We’ve seen in the last few years that Old Town has grown past its original boundaries,” he says. “And I don’t think it’s going to stop.”
Cargill will indeed help spur other develop and redevelopment in the area, he says, producing a new corridor from its new headquarters and Union Station to Intrust Bank Arena in the coming years.
After many years of restaurant, retail and office growth, it has been residential growth that has dominated much of the work and headlines in recent years.
With Cargill, he says, the pendulum could be swinging back — more development in the area that will bring increased demand for downtown living options in the future in a continuous development cycle.
“The addition of Cargill can do nothing less than really spark more and more development,” Van Sickle says.
A BOOST TO DOUGLAS
Cargill’s decision to build on the Wichita Eagle site, 825 E. Douglas, is a huge advance for the city’s plan to make Douglas its main business thoroughfare, say Mayor Jeff Longwell and other city officials.
The goal is a bustling business corridor from Washington to Delano, linking the river, Block One, Old Town and the Douglas Design District - and Cargill’s 800 employees will be at ground zero, next to Union Station as the terminal develops and a vital piece of what will certainly be a growing Old Town economy, say Wichita City Council member Bryan Frye, and Jeff Fluhr, president of the Greater Wichita Partnership.
“It’s not the big that eat the small. It’s the fast that eat the slow. We have to be faster,” Frye says.
Cargill’s choice of ground zero for downtown redevelopment is a big part of being fast, Fluhr says.
“A huge strategy was getting our Michigan Avenue, which is Douglas, vibrant. All this plays a huge part of that,” he says.
Fluhr says the Cargill move is just one of several development opportunities the city has to market — “We’re not done yet,” as Longwell said last week.
“With this, with Cargill on Douglas, we have further connectivity enhanced, not only to the south but to the east and west,” Fluhr says. “The walkability will be great for Old Town business. Walk out your front door and you’re there.”
It solidifies Douglas as the place to be downtown, the two men say.
“What’s happening with Douglas is you’re establishing major anchors at both ends of it,” Fluhr says. “The riverfront, Old Town, then what happens is it strengthens the whole corridor. These projects are building on each other and this will change the skyline, feeding into other investment opportunities.
“These pieces are starting to fit together. Our goal was to connect the great epicenters: Old Town, the arena, the river. Those things are happening,”
They called Cargill’s decision to remain in May “big,” but say the choice of 825 E. Douglas is equally important to the future of downtown.
“This decision is tremendous. You will have a new building, and you’ve been able to maintain 800 jobs and move them to the center of downtown,” Fluhr says.
“When the world’s largest private company decides to stay in Wichita, it’s a win. It’s a great testimony about our community and what we’re trying to do to sell Wichita to the region,” Frye says.