With its new downtown living spaces, arts, sports, recreation, affordability and quality of life, Wichita is a Midwestern gem.
Kansas' largest city offers a strong draw for young professionals – those who have grown up in the area as well as newcomers. Its roots as a stop on Western cattle drives and later as a grain stronghold, then as a manufacturing hub for the aircraft industry, have helped Wichita evolve into the vibrant city it is today.
"Downtowns or city centers are the identity of a community," says Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. since 2008. "When you think about cities across the country, there are going to be associations with that city. More so than not, it's going to be what's happening in that city center. What's happening with their riverfronts, what's happening with the cultural arts, what's distinctive to that city?"
"So it's important as we develop Wichita that we have the same type of understanding that it's important to have a distinctive downtown, which we do," he says.
Master Plan Guides City
Under the leadership of Mayor Carl Brewer, a master plan for the city was adopted in 2010. It is a 15-year initiative to guide growth and maximize opportunities to keep the city strong.
The mayor looks at development from a wider context, as well, Fluhr says.
"He looks at it from a regional perspective, understanding that if we're going to be competitive as a community, as a city, with not only the retention of talent, but the recruitment of talent, that we need to have a vibrant core."
Since the adoption of the master plan, more than 37 projects have been completed, 10 are currently under construction and 10 are in planning stages moving toward construction, Fluhr says.
The millennial generation prefers to live in the city center and work downtown, he adds.
And all that's going on downtown also draws people in from around the region – eclectic restaurants, events at the INTRUST Bank Arena, First and Final Friday art and music crawls, Second Saturday Shopping events, the Wichita Grand Opera, the Wichita Symphony and more.
Young Professionals Welcome
Wichita native Suzy Finn, executive director of Young Professionals of Wichita since 2009, left for college and worked in Washington, D.C. for four years before returning home.
"What drew me back was partly the economy, partly family and partly reading articles about everything that was happening in downtown Wichita," she says.
When Finn moved back to the city, she located in the Finn Lofts, which at one time housed her family's wholesale distribution business. She volunteered at YPW for three years before becoming executive director.
While YPW, some 2,300 members strong, has an important social component, it is also focused on getting members active in Wichita.
"At the beginning of 2013, we revised our mission statement to include the word 'engaged,'" Finn says. "It's not just about attracting and retaining young professionals; the best way to retain them is to get them involved in the community."
After Work, Play
Recreation is also important in Wichita. The city has 127 parks, with bike and hiking trails covering nearly 5,000 acres. For those preferring spectator sports, the Wichita State University Shockers have provided plenty of basketball excitement, reaching the NCAA men's Final Four in 2013. The Wichita Thunder Hockey team also provides family entertainment.
It's the overall quality of life that makes Wichita special, says Susie Santo, president and CEO of Go Wichita since 2012. A Kansas native who lived in California for most of her professional life, Santo says Wichita is a hidden jewel.
"People speak of the Midwest as being very hospitable, and that is absolutely true of Wichita," she says. "I believe it's a place where the American dream is still alive ... There's a real sense of energy around the city right now. There's a sense of optimism, a feeling of momentum in Wichita. That's very exciting to me."