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Johnson's Goal: Make WaterWalk a blend of concepts

Friday, August 18 2006 12:00 AM
WaterWalk isn't going Western.

President Tom Johnson confirmed this week that the cowboy-style Saddle Ranch Chop House -- famous for its mechanical riding bull and party atmosphere -- is planning to open a restaurant in WaterWalk.

But, he says, there's no need to worry that the highly anticipated, $130 million downtown project will turn into another Cowtown.

"It has Western overtones, but the overall theme for the project will stay pretty much as we had planned," Johnson says. "You can tastefully blend those things into the project."

Johnson says he received an e-mail this week from someone wondering if WaterWalk -- tabbed as one of most upscale mixed-use developments in Wichita -- was "going Western." Johnson says his goal is to create an environment that will attract a variety of visitors. Saddle Ranch, he says, hits the mark.

It may be different from what some people were expecting as WaterWalk's first restaurant, but different can be good, says Wichita Mayor Carlos Mayans.

"I think it's great," Mayans says. "Being downtown, I think that the Western theme is appropriate. This fits in there."

Wichita City Council Member Jim Skelton says he doesn't know much about Saddle Ranch, but has faith in the decision to bring it on board.

"I think the city trusts these developers as professionals," Skelton says. "They tell us this is a good choice, and I don't have any reason not to believe that."

Skelton says what's most important to him at this point is seeing movement at WaterWalk.

"Most of the concern of the public is that nothing is happening," he says. "I think now that something is happening. ... We just need to keep the ball rolling and hope that things keep their momentum."

Johnson says he wants to sign three or four more restaurants. He's talking with restaurants that already have a presence in Wichita, but a big part of his focus is on those that aren't here and that offer unique entertainment.

"We're trying to be ambitious and go after restaurants that think Wichita is too small a market for them," he says.

The goal, he says, is for visitors to come to the restaurants in WaterWalk for a meal, but have enough to do that they don't leave right away.


"What WaterWalk is really about is an urban village, if you will, with a real 24/7 atmosphere," Johnson says. "It's kind of like a more compact Old Town, but new."

That plan, Johnson says, is the same as it has been since WaterWalk's inception.

Upscale and Casual
What happens at WaterWalk makes a big difference to many business owners around downtown.

Michael Elzufon, a partner in Real Development with several condo buildings under development, is trying to encourage people that moving downtown is a good idea.

Elzufon says getting a commitment from Saddle Ranch helps his cause.

"At the end of the day, if they have a national restaurant, that is incredibly great and important to the overall improvement down there," Elzufon says.

And if the concept isn't a hit?

"The bottom line is it will go on for a year, and if it doesn't work, they'll take it out and put something else in."

Johnson says he's confident that the concept will work.

"They've been in southern California and have been successful for a long time, and I anticipate the same thing for us," he says.


Curt Melzer, owner of the Vagabond Cafe and John Barleycorn's Bar and Grill -- both in the Delano District -- says anything WaterWalk does should bring more customers to his bars. And the more diversity, the better.

"You need a group of restaurants that appeal to families as well as the younger crowd," Melzer says. "For a district to be truly viable, it needs a mixture of locally and nationally owned bars and restaurants."

One of the groups negotiating to locate in the WaterWalk is the Greater Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau. CVB President and CEO John Rolfe says he thinks Saddle Ranch will be a good fit. And like Melzer, he's also hopeful that WaterWalk will sign a variety of styles of restaurants.

"I guess I saw this as the first of hopefully several types of restaurants in that entertainment district," Rolfe says. "I'm hoping they'll have even more upscale restaurants, along with more casual restaurants."

Melzer says he's happy to see WaterWalk moving further along and hopes that momentum continues.

"I really want them to follow through with what they've promised," he says.


Where: Waterman and Main Street.
Signed tenants: Gander Mountain; Wichita Area Association of Realtors.
Letter of intent: Saddle Ranch Chop House.
Contact: Tom Johnson, (316) 219-6060.

[email protected] | 266-6191

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