- Bernard Knowles plans to build “College Park Plaza” in Wichita’s District One.
- He has invested in the Black community, building quality rental units.
- Knowles suggests collaboration for development projects in the community.
When general contractor and developer Bernard Knowles married his wife, Dr. Rhea Rogers, and moved to Wichita from his native Philadelphia, he immediately saw opportunity in the area surrounding Wichita State University.
“I watched the area around the University of Pennsylvania just explode with growth,” he said. “I saw the same potential here.”
As property came up for sale, he began buying near the university as well as elsewhere in the community.
College Park Plaza
Over time, he’s added the surrounding property so that he now owns everything in a block square from Hillside to Lorraine and 17th Street to 16th Street, with the exception of the now vacant former WSU International building at the corner of 17th and Hillside and two small lots on 17th and Lorraine. He’s applied for a 65-year lease on the WSU International lot.
His goal is to build “College Park Plaza” on that property – a mix of housing and retail space.
He envisions a 30-unit apartment building for senior citizens, another mixed-used building with 15,000 sq. ft. retail space on the first floor with 20 apartments above it, and a 30-unit market-rate apartment building.
He originally sought a letter of intent to lease the WSU property in 2016 under then-president John Bardo.
Seven years and two presidents later, he’s still waiting to get a revised letter of intent approved by the Kansas Board of Regents before he can get the $14 million project underway.
During the height of COVID, Knowles closed TOPS (Taste of Philadelphia), the restaurant he owned and operated in a strip mall near 21st and Grove, and says he’d like to reopen the restaurant in College Park Plaza.
As a developer with connections to the community, he sees the retail space as a place to provide the community the retail and service businesses they want and need.
“The way I see it, the university has already seen strong growth. Now, it’s time to grow our community.”
Building in District One
Besides building in and around Wichita State University, Knowles is a rare private developer building in Wichita’s District One, which encompasses the city’s core Black community.
In fact, all of his investments are in District One, an area that his father-in-law, George Rogers, once represented on the city council.
For the past two decades or more, building in the community has relied heavily on nonprofits. For housing, nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, Mennonite Housing and POWER CDC, have built most of the homes and USD 259 has contributed schools.
Besides banks, gas stations and dollar stores, pretty much any construction in the district has had nonprofits behind them.
For private developers, District 1 has been a non-starter. But Knowles has focused his development predominantly in Wichita’s Black community, building quality rental units.
He recently completed construction of four duplexes and a triplex at 26th and Hillside. When COVID hit, he sold his TOPS restaurant to help fund building on the property.
“I bought that property for $60,000 with a bank loan for 60% of the price. Because I am a general contractor, I could put in a lot of sweat equity,” he said. “That property is now worth $1.75 million and every unit is occupied.
His initial Wichita investment was in the 1500 block of Fairmount, where he built two townhouse units with garages.
He also has plans to build six single-family homes near 9th and Madison.
Unite on Projects
Developing in District 1 can be tough, in part because it’s tough to get banks to buy into supporting development inside the community, even for developers like Knowles, with a proven track record.
“Banks can be generous or impossible,” he said. “I’ve sat down with bank presidents, even hosted them at my house. But the checkbook is still closed. I had bank officials out to the job site for the houses at 9th and Madison, but so far, no word except I had to pay them $500 for an appraisal.”
He said he’s determined to get a project done at 17th and Hillside and has put up a sign on his vacant lot to try to get a feel from businesses who might want to become tenants. He already knows who one of them will be.
With funding being so tight for development in the community, Knowles has a message for the community:
“If you have a project, I have a project; let us collectively collaborate on one project. We get yours done, then we go with someone else’s,” said Knowles.
“So many groups have done that. We can’t work opposite of each other. It just makes sense for us to pull together and unite and be a part of each other’s projects … to pull together to help build each other and the community up.”