When WalMart announced plans to close 150 plus across the country, it’s a surprise you couldn’t hear the collective sigh from the millions of frustrated shoppers who weren’t sure how they’d recover. It was a particularly hard hit for Northeast Wichita since just days before, Quik Trip announced the closing of their store — also located at the corner of 13th and Oliver. While Wichitans may have felt particularly betrayed, we weren’t alone. Just up the highway in Topeka, a similar incident was occurring in an older and poorer part of town. There, Dillons announced the closing of a historic store that was the center of the community.
The Dillons store is a big loss for the Central Topeka community, since the store was the only accessible store for many nearby residents who either walked or biked there. The closing of both the Dillons and the WalMart creates “food deserts.” In an urban area, the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers a neighborhood a food desert if at least a fifth of residents live in poverty and a third live more than a mile from a supermarket.
In Topeka, upset residents organized and held a meeting within 48 hours of the announcement. In Wichita, disappointed residents took to social media. Elected officials in both cities started making calls, but the bottom line is — the decisions will not be reversed.
“We’ve got some hard conversations about what to do,” Topeka Vice-Mayor Karen Hiller told the nearly 200 residents who gathered to discuss next steps in Topeka.
In Wichita, Councilwoman Lavonta Williams, who also represents the area where the store will be closed, waited three weeks to gather community representatives for a discussion about how to recover.
Williams said she understood the Quik Trip closing. The site was landlocked and couldn’t be expanded into the larger new generation stores the corporation has been upgrading to, and with a larger Quik Trip just a mile south, a new store at 96 and Oliver and the new Kwik Shop at 21st Street, competition had driven sales down at the 13th and Oliver location.
She wasn’t as understanding about the Walmart closing. She admits to being just plain mad. Instead of holding a meeting to vent, she decided to wait and hold a meeting “with a purpose,” to discuss next steps.
At that meeting held Sat., Feb. 6, community residents wrote down things they currently can’t do within a mile of their home. In a community dominated by liquor stores, smoke shops, convenience and dollar stores, the list of unavailable products and services was extensive. John Hall, the City’s new Housing and Community Development Director helped facilitate the discussion.
More than just grocery stores, the group considered many options for the “redevelopment” of the 13th and Oliver intersection. Although residents may want a quick decision, Hall suggested a more strategic process that includes creation of a master development plan for the area. That process would engage residents, business owners, elected officials and professional planners in a discussion about how to grow the area.
Part of the process would also involve looking at available data that shows what residents in the area are currently buying.
“That kind of information would be a driver for us as practitioners use as we recruit tenants,” said Hall.
For Wichita, the possibilities for the redevelopment of 13th and Oliver area are extensive. The City has invested heavily in the area. They widened 13th Street, invested in the KenMar Shopping Center infrastructure and provided financing incentives to the center developers. Those improvements and a high traffic volume intersection make the area very attractive to businesses.
However, in these competitive times when cities and areas are often attracting new business with financial incentives, instead of waiting for businesses to come to the area, they’ll have to go out and attract them. It’s important that they attract the right kind of businesses said Williams, who is adamant she doesn’t want another liquor store or payday loan store at the intersection.
Another big plus for redevelopment in the area is the planned expansion at Wichita State University. Construction of the Innovation Campus, on the old WSU golf course, makes the surrounding development ripe for retail and service expansion in support of the businesses and employees who will be located on the campus. As the campus grows, so can Northeast Wichita.
Already planned for the southwest corner of 21st and Oliver is a development with several sit-down restaurants and at least one hotel. In addition to the new Kwik Shop on the northeast corner of 21st and Oliver, there’s commercial interest in the development of the northwest corner of 21st and Oliver and potential for the revitalization of University Plaza.
The goal would be to get the momentum from the campus expansion headed south to 13th and Oliver. It can be done with the right mix of offerings. It’s a model that’s working across the country. The growth of Innovation campuses are helping to revive surrounding communities that are often poorer and older neighborhoods. With those campus expansions comes additional services, retail and jobs.
Both buildings, Walmart and Quick Trip, are owned by their respective companies who have some control over the type of future businesses that can go into the buildings. Both companies have a history of refusing to allow similar businesses to come into buildings they vacate.
The center developers still owe several million dollars to the City on the development financing. One suggestion that resonated with individuals at the community meeting was designating future repayment dollars towards redevelopment of the area including funding and support to encourage small business development in the area.
Another interim suggestion was to use the shopping center parking as the place for a recurring farmers market as a way to give nearby residents easy access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Like the City of Wichita, Topeka municipal government has also invested heavily in the redevelopment of the area surrounding the store. During the past 15 years, the City’s expansion in the area has included the $23 million expansion of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library and the $22 million mixed use College Hill redevelopment. Between infill housing and the College Hill development, 251 housing units have been built in the area.
More residential in nature, the big question for Central Topeka remains, “where will the residents shop?” Since the community meeting, city leaders, including Topeka City Manager Jim Colson and Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Matt Pivarnik, are already engaging around finding a permanent solution.
Dillons gave the City clearance to work with their real estate team to negotiate a plan for the building.
Beyond Dillons and Walmart, who dominate grocery shopping in Kansas, there are a number of smaller grocery retailers with stores in Kansas. Certainly, the City will look to attract one of those grocers to the vacated store, with or without incentives.
There is an Independent Grocers Alliance (IGA) store operating just 30 miles north of Topeka in Holton, KS. Sav-a-lot, a discount food store, recently opened a new store in Salina and has several locations in the Kansas City area. A further stretch is the Piggly Wiggly chain that has stores in Western Kansas and the Safeway chain with stores in western Missouri.
There is hope for a replacement store on Huntoon, but it may come down to how aggressive, including incentives, City officials will be about attracting a store.
“We will find a resolution, and this community will become stronger than ever,” said City Manager Colson.