Why might Wichita be an All-American City?

all-american city logoWe’ve noticed a few questions about how Wichita is a finalist for the All-American Cities award.

Read on to see the city’s application, which includes detailed descriptions of the projects that were picked.  (Some personal contact information has been removed.  And some fonts and characters have been slightly scrambled in conversion.)


Tell us your story. Utilizing the awards criteria describe how your community addresses its pressing challenges and plans for its future. How are the neighborhoods, government, businesses, and nonprofits organizations engaged in these efforts. What is your community’s vision? Include real examples of how your community has demonstrated its strengths and faced its challenges. How does it embrace diversity and demonstrate inclusiveness? (1,200 word maximum). Resource: NCL’s Civic Index. Ask for a copy.

The heart of downtown was once a collection of abandoned warehouses, home to forgotten businesses and lost souls. Today, the former warehouse district is known as Old Town, the top destination spot in the city, a source of community pride and, according to the American Planning Association, one of 10 “Great Neighborhoods in America.” The homeless don’t live there anymore. It’s now home to thriving retailers, restaurants and residences, characterized by red-brick facades, gateway arches and a thriving nightlife.

This success story in the center of the city is a result of public-private partnerships. Downtown’s resurgence has inspired further community collaboration, improvements in other aging neighborhoods, more success stories and a sense of empowerment across the Wichita area.

Residents in aging areas of Wichita who traditionally have fought poverty, crime and blight, are looking for better housing options, safer neighborhoods and more opportunities for youth. In North Wichita recent efforts to revitalize neighborhoods have honored and showcased diverse cultures. Community leaders have come together to identify opportunities and empower their residents, especially youth. For example, local government, churches, neighborhoods associations and the public school district have combined efforts to clean up grafitti on utility poles throughout traditionally hispanic neighborhoods. They now showcase student art instead of gang grafitti. Local high school students have also partnered with an artist and the City of Wichita to create public art at bus shelters along the 21st Street corridor, a main thoroughfare throughout North Central Wichita and a budding ethnic destination.

Wichita also has underserved populations that fail to reach their full potential, in part, because of lacking opportunity.  This has led to distress and despair in some neighborhoods.   Wichita hopes to reverse this trend by empowering citizens with quality of life improvements. In recent years, the City of Wichita has partnered with local housing agencies to assist homeowners in property repair and beautification. The START (Stopblight, Action Response Team) program is an initiative that assists residents in assessing their homes and properties for code violations and dangerous conditions. It offers low to no-interest financial loans, grants and provides ongoing support throughout the rebuilding process. In a four-block area between bounded by 13th, and 15th, Poplar and Grove, 67 homes were out of compliance with city code. Through the START program, 32 homes (48%) were brought into compliance through housing assistance or their own efforts. The START program is supported by amenities such as a locally-owned grocery, discount grocer, Save-A-Lot. It rests on the northeast corner of 13th and Grove, providing residents with the first full-service grocery stores in years. This neighborhood dream was realized through private and public funding. Save-A-Lot also empowers residents by offering employment opportunities.

Citizen engagement has been a focus of regional government, community forums and neighborhood gatherings. Visioneering Wichita, a regional improvement initiative, has engaged more than 16,000 area residents on various issues, including the retention of jobs and young people, racial diversity and leadership . Citizen-driven coalitions empower residents to have voice and a role in the future of the Wichita area. This has required conversation through neighborhood meetings, town hall discussions and monthly breakfast meetings. A recent Hispanic Town Hall meeting drew 200 people on a Saturday, resulting in a fulfilled request for more police at a busy intersection and a commitment to address an emerging flooding issue that was a threat to children walking to school. After inquiring about the challenges that elected officals face, a 10-year-old Hispanic boy received an offer from the Mayor to be “Mayor for a day.” Input and buy-in from diverse groups is essential to community progress.

Community agencices are also essential to addressing and resolving issues. For example, the City of Wichita and Sedgwick County have partnered with the United Way of the Plains to address homelessness through a program called Housing First. Though the community has recently decreased its homeless population to slightly fewer than 500, the Housing First goal is to eliminate homelessness and place people and families in homes. Area non-profits play an integral role in caring for those in need – non-profits such as the Kansas Food Bank, The Bread of Life and The Lord’s Diner, which provides a free meal 365 days a year for the needy.  The United Way coordinates a volunteer count of the homeless every year. The count enables community partners to track progress and identify new challenges. Volunteers and organizations continue to rally to decrease homelessness and empower people who have lost their way and will.

The community has also come together to address healthcare. One example is the Wichita Business Coalition on Healthcare, an alliance created through a regional improvement initiative. It was established in 2008 to address growing concerns and costs related to lacking healthcare coverage. Its goal is to build partnerships designed to improve the quality of health care and decrease the costs.  Wichita is a regional hub for healthcare and its agencies are increasingly encountering under- and uninsured people. The region’s for-profit and non-profit healthcare institutions are feeling the burden.  Area and neighborhood clinics also play a role in serving disadvantaged groups. Take, for example, the homegrown Center for Health and Wellness, which serves disadvantaged patients in an impoverished area. Though the healthcare problem still looms over an increasing number of people, partnerships are forming to create effective strategies and empower caregivers.

As many communities endure a slowing economy, the Wichita area is again meeting the challenge. The local aviation industry is struggling with layoffs. The United Way has harnessed support from local governments, non-profits and social service agencies to establish a laid-off workers center. The unemployed will have access to social programs, government assistance as well as workforce opportunities and training. This one-stop service center is another example of Wichitans and their neighbors caring for one another in times of despair.

The community also comes together during times of tragedy. In 2007, a tornado destroyed the City of Greensburg. While surrounding municipalities provided fire trucks, police officers, water service and other public assistance, scores of volunteers responded with food, clothing and other basic needs. A similar volunteer response occurred when an ice storm pounded nearby Hutchinson and floods ravaged Coffeyville in the southeast part of the state.

Community empowerment through collaboration is at the root of Wichita’s story. It’s what has led to efforts to revitalize downtown, rebuild aging neighborhoods, improve quality of life and address the needs of each and every resident. Wichita is a friendly, generous and inclusive community, an All-America City whether you’re dining in Old Town, walking through your restored neighborhood or seeking empowerment in a time of need.


What are your community’s two most pressing challenges? (400 words maximum)

Neighborhood Revitalization:

Many Wichitans define themselves by which side of the Arkansas (ARK-Kansas) River they live on: east or west. You’re either an “Eastsider” or a “Westsider”. This reflects the increasing suburban growth over the past half century which left the center city and other aging areas to the south and north home to aging and abandoned neighborhoods. This flight of families and single dwellers created distinct and sometimes distressed areas such as Midtown, Planeview, Hilltop, McAdams and KenMar.

These neighborhoods and others need revitalization. As the city has committed to redeveloping Downtown, surrounding neighborhoods need a facelift and makeover as well. This challenge requires time, money and hard work. Many partners throughout the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County and South Central Kansas are teaming up to bring back what was once vibrant and healthy neighborhoods including the downtown area. Distressed areas cause despair and afflict neighborhoods with dilapidated housing, crime, drugs poverty and education inequalities. This is a pressing challenge that lowers affected residents’ quality of life, creates blight issues for various institutions and damages the image of the city that is increasingly trying to create jobs, attract businesses and retain families and young people.

Retaining Young People:

In recent years, the Wichita MSA has seen a disturbing phenomenon: the flight of young people. The anecdotal and statistical data is daunting. It is estimated that each year about 8,500 youth turn 18 in the Wichita MSA. Many of them leave the community, taking an estimated $300,000 of investment including the costs of educating them. This exodus of youth robs Wichita of financial, intellectual and human capital. The failure to retain young people could leave the city and the region with an aging population and fewer resources to care for them. Another result is what is referred to as brain drain – the loss of young people who could be the next generation of skilled manufacturing workers, teachers, public servants, business owners, mentors and volunteers.

It is absolutely vital to address this challenge in order to secure the next generation of Wichitans and leaders for our community. Wichita is praised as a great place for families and older generations but it won’t meet its full potential if the next generation isn’t here to settle down and start families.


Describe your three best collaborative community projects that have resulted in a significant local impact within the past five years. Ideally, the first two projects should be drawn directly from the two community challenges stated above. The third project should benefit youth and children. Include examples of how these projects promote collaboration, inclusiveness, innovation, and impact.

PROJECT ONE (Challenge #1) – Mennonite Housing

Provide a description of the first project and its qualitative and quantitative impacts in the past five years. (1,200 word maximum)

As a mid-sized City established in the 1800’s, Wichita faces the large challenge of old, dilapidated neighborhoods needing a fresh start. The loss of population and business over the past few decades has resulted in erosion, disinvestment and physical decline in several neighborhoods. Neighborhood Revitalization is a challenge and a priority. One organization is making this priority a reality – one block, one neighborhood, one community at a time. The Mennonite Housing Rehabilitation Services (MHRS) program was founded in 1975, with a vision for making the world better for low-income residents by repairing homes of elderly and disabled residents. Although the core of Mennonite Housing’s mission has remained the same through the years, the organization has recently expanded to make dreams come true for people who cannot afford decent housing or home ownership.

In 2005, the block of 12th and Piatt in Northeast Wichita was a hub for drugs, crime, prostitution and gang activity. It was not safe for anyone to walk the streets day or night. It was a neighborhood that didn’t have a neighborly feel. Drive-bys and street fights were common. Through a community- based intervention strategy called “ Weed and Seed,” Mennonite Housing partnered with other agencies such as city and county representatives, faith-based organizations, not-for-profit agencies and neighborhood groups to address issues and rebuild. Four dilapidated homes were torn down and six brand new high quality homes were built. This development changed the lives of six families and makeup of an entire neighborhood. The crime dropped, the drug traffic slowed and the streetgangs fled. Today, children play in the streets, neighbors communicate from yard to yard and a new community thrives. This block is just one of seven blocks in the City’s Local Investment Areas where Mennonite Housing has built new homes. More than 100 new homes have been constructed with partner funding from local municipalities and banks. Mennonite builds a $100,000 home, then sells the home for a maximum of $85,700. Families receive additional financial assistance from partner agencies, lowering their loan costs to less than $70,000. For many people and families, it is a dream deferred that has come true. Once residing in the home, these families feel a sense of empowerment over their home, their block and their community. The can help make certain that their neighborhoods are safe and secure.

Valley Center, Kansas is a smaller rural community just north of Wichita. Through the USDA Rural Development’s Mutual Self- Help Housing Program, Mennonite Housing has provided housing dreams for more than 100 individuals and families. The Self Help program involves building your own home, your next-doors neighbor’s home and others on the block. Families become construction crews. The homes start at $144,000, offering 100% financing with interest rates as low as 1% for qualified families. The success of the program stems from the shared labor and the forged relationships. No one can move into a home until everyone moves in. This self help program exists in three other communities near Wichita: Newton, Maize and Greensburg, where in 2007 the devastation of a category EF-5 tornado destroyed the entire town. A fourth self-help community has just started construction in Hesston, KS.

Planeview, in the southeast area of Wichita, is an older, blighted and neglected neighborhood. The neighborhood was established in 1943 during World War II as temporary housing for aviation industry workers. Homes were constructed in 15 months on 592 acres and originally housed more than 20,000 people. It was once called the “miracle city” because of the “magic” it took to construct 4,382 units in such a short time. Two types of homes were constructed: one and two story site fabricated homes. The average rent was $32 a month. Today there are more than 1,700 housing units, most of which are substandard by today’s measures. Some of the original families still reside there. Today, they find themselves living in a different environment. The community is stigmatized because of poverty, crime and a lack of home ownership. In the 1950‘s there were several attempts to “tear down” Planeview, but residents continuously challenged this effort. They had nowhere else to go. This still holds true for many residents and it might take another “miracle city” to change the current conditions. Mennonite Housing has taken the challenge to heart and constructed several new homes in a Local Investment Area in Planeview. It has begun the revitalization efforts. In 2009, Mennonite will open a 54 unit senior living facility providing safe, warm, and dependable living quarters for senior citizens 62 or older. The Southern Hills Senior Residence, comprised of 54 one-bedroom units, will provide affordable housing. In addition to apartments, seniors will enjoy a community room with a kitchen area. Residents are hoping to partner with neighborhood groups to secure more social services. This project is a benefit for seniors in the surrounding neighborhoods. There are many seniors currently living in substandard housing because. The Southern Hills Senior Residence will provide clean, safe, affordable and comfortable housing to low-income seniors. They will be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Some of Wichita’s most vulnerable and valuable citizens will have a place to call their own.

For more than 25 years, Mennonite Housing has been a dynamic movement in the community, each year assisting hundreds of families in a three-county area. Since its inception, MHRS has conducted repairs on more than 12,000 homes and built more than 500 new homes in the Wichita area. The need of Wichita residents for decent, affordable housing constantly grows and changes. Mennonite Housing will continue to address these concerns. With help from local government, churches, businesses, foundations and people, they will successfully tackle this challenges that faces our community.

PROJECT TWO (Challenge #2) – Visioneering Wichita

Provide a description of the second project and its qualitative and quantitative impacts in the past five years. (1200 word maximum)

Visioneering Wichita (VW) is about the empowerment of a community. It is about getting people to think about not only where the city is moving, but the future direction of an entire region. VW is about achieving far-reaching, but attainable goals to make the region an excellent place to live.

That vision and the goals were developed through a process that involved more than 16,000 people. In 2004, residents from throughout the region gave input on efforts and priority to issues, including creating jobs, increasing per-capita income, ensuring education at every age and various quality of life initiatives. A process was created where the community could reach consensus on major issues of local, regional and statewide importance. Thousands of volunteers and hundreds of organizations worked together to create a long-term plan. This vision incorporates the ideas and thoughtful conversation of more than 8,650 residents, gathered through 36 focus groups, 10 community meetings, four vision task forces and the steering committee, representing all the communities in the Wichita region. Ten community issues were selected for the VW working document: Regional growth and development, retaining young people, job growth, income growth, education, family stability, downtown development, arts/ recreation, racial diversity, opportunity and harmony and leadership.

VW set lofty but attainable goals for the year 2024, the goals are:

1) Wichita MSA will be a leading community for retaining and expanding current businesses and creating and recruiting new businesses.

2) Wichita MSA will have a globally competitive education system that encourages and supports lifelong learning and contributes to the social, cultural, and economic vitality of our diverse community.

3) Wichita MSA will be a healthy, safe community that has a vibrant recreation, entertainment, arts, and cultural focus that embraces diversity and builds pride.

4) Wichita MSA will be a national model for effective, efficient, inclusive, accountable governments that are representative of the community’s needs and desires.

5) Wichita MSA will have adequate infrastructure to support downtown, urban and suburban neighborhoods that will enhance quality of life and promote economic development. 6) Wichita MSA will be a community where citizens actively participate in public/ private leadership that makes the Wichita MSA competitive regionally, nationally, and globally.

Strategies were set for each goal with over 500 organizations and community groups attaching themselves to one or more strategies. These vision partners agreed to work together to commit time, staff and resources to making individual strategies reality.

It is now 2009 and where is VW in the process? There have been several key accomplishments.

The Birth-K Alliance is one example. Statistics showed that 23% of Kansas children, age birth to five, live in South Central Kansas and of those, 33% live with risk factors. The Alliance completed a needs assessment and strategic planning process in June 2008. Members representing 60 organizations from 13 cities across the region envisioned a comprehensive early childhood system. The vision included 1) affordable, high quality care and education are widely available in all of South Central Kansas, 2) social/ emotional and mental health interventions and services are available to families with young children and 3) communities equip parents and families with skills to enhance their child’s learning and development. Alliance members made a joint application to the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund and were awarded $1.1 million dollars. The funds will have a lasting regional impact for years to come. A comprehensive early childhood system is part of the infrastructure that allows parents to go to work. A strong system can attract and retain a young workforce. In Sedgwick County alone, more than 15,000 families rely on high-quality child care in order to participate in the workforce.

Another key accomplishment is the Kansas Affordable Airfares Program (KAAP). This program, an outcome of the 2006 Unified Legislative Agenda, is designed to provide more flight-service options, more competition for air travel and reduce airfares for customers at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. Now in its fourth year, the Affordable Airfares Program is a five-year, $5 million-a- year state commitment in support of low-cost airfares. Affordable Airfares has boosted the economies of the Wichita community and the state of Kansas. Wichita Mid-Continent Airport set another passenger record in 2008 with an increase of nearly 23,000 fliers thanks to the Affordable Airfares program. This happened during a year when passenger numbers nation-wide were down nearly 3 percent.

A third key accomplishment is public/ private sector leadership or mentoring. Vision partners agreed to develop and support community leaders of all ages and races through accessible leadership development programs. These programs encourage young people to get involved in leadership. Out of this strategy came the group Young Professionals of Wichita (YPW). In 2004 statistics showed that for every one person that entered the workforce, two departed. As baby boomers retired, would Wichita have the young talent to replace them? Adding to the problem was fleeing youth. Many young people were educated here only to move away, taking with them financial and intellectual capital. Statistics show that each young person represents a $300,000 investment by the community. The Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce realized the pressing need to proactively enter the fiercely competitive global market for young professionals. Young Professionals of Wichita was launched in June 2005, with a vision of making Wichita the Heartland’s destination for young intellectual capital. YPW is a membership-based organization, geared towards Wichitans between 21 and 39. Their motto: “YPs are ambitious, educated and wired; those ready to work hard, play hard and make a difference in their community.” This motivated group set goals of creating professional and social diversity, building community pride, increasing the quality of life for young professionals, growing the next generation of leaders, and establishing a collective voice. With membership of 1,900 and growing, this organization is comprised of bright, energetic “YPs” who promise to be actively engaged in the growth of Wichita over the coming years. YPW offers innovative ways for young professionals in the Wichita area to socialize and expand their professional horizons. This provides a unique professional asset; both to the young people of this community and to the businesses that help Wichita thrive!

Though the accomplishments to date are impressive, Visioneering Wichita’s process is what’s remarkable. Who would have thought a community would come together so strongly to engage in an unknown process with ambitious goals? Who knew that people would come together and move beyond their own agenda and take part in a community assessment to set goals and take action to benefit the region? Those who started VW thought it might be possible. They wanted leadership from the boardroom and the backyard. Visioneering Wichita is about the gift of collaboration, the realization of a dream and the empowerment of a community.

PROJECT THREE (Benefit Youth and Children) – Opportunity Drive

Provide a description of a project and its qualitative and quantitative impacts on youth in the past five years. This project may address issues such as literacy, community service, health, recreation, or other youth-related issues. Projects addressing underserved youth are particularly valued in this program.(1,200 word maximum)

More than 11,000 children under the age of 18 live within walking distance of 21st Street, and what is now called Opportunity Drive. It is an area characterized by high crime, and at least 60 percent of children live with families at the poverty level or below. Many children live with single parents. Achievement test scores and graduation rates are low. The robbery rate is 14 times higher than that of the rest of the city while the murder rate is six times higher. The teen pregnancy rate is a staggering 49% higher, and the high school dropout rate is 26% higher. Children born into this neighborhood face many challenges. If they’re going to become educated, healthy and contributing adults, they need opportunity.

Community and business leaders in the area wanted to take action. They joined together to discuss what could be done to improve the prospects of youth in the area. They saw opportunity in an abandoned, parcel of land, characterized by weeds, eroding trees and brush. They engaged the community on a vision for the area and would soon embark on a public-private partnership that transformed the area into a multi-facility campus, attracted national media and became a learning and recreation destination for youth.

The facilities include:

(1) A new pre-K Learning Center, The Opportunity Project (TOP);

(2) A new 45,000 square feet Boys & Girls Club

(3) And a K through 8th grade public school, which is a candidate for the International Baccalaureate program and named after renowned photographer, author and filmmaker Gordon Parks.

Also, about 3,200 sq. ft. of the space within Gordon Parks Academy is dedicated to GraceMed Health Clinic, which provides medical and dental services to people in the surrounding areas.

The 21st Street partnership had several public and private partners. From the public sector there was: the City of Wichita, Sedgwick County, USD 259, and Wichita State University. Private sector partners included: Bank of America, Cessna Aircraft Company, The Wichita Eagle, The Downing Family, Kansas Health Foundation, Intrust Bank, Commerce Bank, Cox Communications, Fahnestock Heating and Air Conditioning, Fourth Financial, Westar Energy, Raytheon Aircraft Company, Capital Enterprises, Insurance Management Associates and a host of community volunteers.

The City of Wichita, which owned the property, agreed to undertake all necessary site preparation for the new facilities- including streets, and all lighting, water and utility connections. Sedgwick County agreed to expand its financial support to the Boys and Girls Club for student rehabilitation. USD 259 agreed to construct the International Baccalaureate candidate school in the area. Wichita State University agreed to expand its mentoring programs for fine arts to the Boys & Girls Club.

Completion of these superb facilities transformed a deserted parcel of property into a sea of activity. The neighborhood is experiencing a rebirth. Opportunities are being created. Young lives, once seemingly on a track of crime, poverty and drugs, now have an opportunity to change the course of their lives.

These extraordinary initiatives have been planned and implemented without federal government assistance. In the summer of 2007, then-President Bush visited the facility to recognize this great partnership. He praised the project as a model for other communities aiming to improve the lives of children in economically challenged neighborhoods.

Opportunity Drive is often referred to as a Youth Empowerment Zone. This was the vision of community leaders when the plan was brought forward. The new facilities represent a $30 million investment: $15 million from the private sector and $15 million from the public. The campaign started in June 2005 and raised $8.5 million by December 2005. The dedication to addressing the area’s underserved population was displayed by how hard community leaders worked to raise money for the youth empowerment zone.

The three components of the campus are flourishing.

The Boys & Girls Club researched and visited other facilities throughout the nation and found that performing arts was more popular than athletics. This led to the club expanding its programs at the new facility to include multiple sporting activities and a wide range of dance, music, theater and art classes. It also provides life-learning programs such as teen-pregnancy prevention, drug prevention and job-training classes. The new Boys & Girls Club was built in nine months, opening in June 2007. It now serves area youth, expanding their opportunities to flourish in the community. The Boys & Girls Club has produced outcomes: 70% of students maintaining or improving their GPA, 80% improving their knowledge of computers, and 95% improving social behavior at the club and school.

Gordon Parks Academy opened for its first year of classes in August 2008 and has just completed the second step to becoming an authorized International Baccalaureate school. The process to becoming an Authorized IB World-Wide School takes three to four years. Students learn the district and state standards through the framework and philosophies of the International Baccalaureate Organization. These units of inquiry motivate students to learn through their natural curiosity. Learning is made relevant to their lives through the units of inquiry and the Learner Profile. Also, students learn Spanish from K-8 grade. In addition, the IB components motivate students to take action to make the world a better place through community service.

TOP Early Learning Center is the second of its kind in Wichita. TOP allows low-income children the opportunity to obtain the academic and social skills to be grade-level ready for kindergarten. The exceptional outcomes at the South TOP location made it a prime choice to become an early learning center at Opportunity Drive. Executive Director, Janice Smith, described the impact on children who attended TOP. “When you empower kids they have hope,” she said. TOP 4-year old students show Kindergarten readiness at 73% whereas the Kansas Health Institutes shows that Kindergarten readiness for all four-year old, low-income Kansans is only at 56%. TOP students have shown gains in proficiency ranging from 20% to 35% for indicators such as Personal/Social Development, Language and Literacy, Mathematical Thinking, and Scientific Thinking.

There are approximately 130 Students at the TOP facility, 350 regular attendees at the Boys and Girls Club and 420 students at Gordon Parks Academy. It is estimated that TOP could serve as many as 180 students next school year due to a new expansion. Opportunity Drive is still in its formative stages but has enjoyed early success as a model learning and recreation campus. There are plans to build a similar campus in the heart of Wichita’s Hispanic neighborhood.