Wichita, Kan., did not host the 2018 NCAA men’s Final Four basketball championship. But the city acted like it did.
Wichita went all out as a first- and second-round site for the NCAA tourney. It set up block parties around its INTRUST Bank Arena so fans could celebrate before and after games. Wichita also accomplished a feat no other early- round host city had managed. It housed more than 14k fans at open practices held the day before the tourney started.
“We treated it like it was the Final Four,” said Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita.
The effort was typical of Kansas’s largest city. With visitors on the doorstep, said Santo, “the community rallied around and rolled out the red carpet.”
Upon arrival, Wichita wows
Wichita is known for its aviation industry, and its modern airport tends to wow even well-heeled travelers like a professional tennis player who came to town for a competition. Like other visitors, he learned that getting around was easy and inexpensive, thanks to complimentary hotel shuttles and a free downtown Q-Line system.
No dusty cowtown
Those who arrive in Wichita expecting a dusty cowtown instead find sophistication, from a city symphony to an art museum where Chihuly chandeliers dangle over visitors.
Even Old Cowtown Museum, which preserves Wichita’s frontier spirit through a recreated Kansas town of 54 historic 1800s buildings, can shift its mood depending on need. One event might be cowboy casual, with barbecue and beans, the next formal and fancy, with white tablecloths, china and crystal.
Tigers, gorillas and elephants
Wichita also has an unexpected exotic side. At the Sedgwick County Zoo, gorillas, tigers and one of the country’s best African elephant exhibits become backdrops for meetings. Another venue, Tanganyika Wildlife Park, specializes in close-up encounters with rare creatures as it tells of a family’s success in breeding exotic animals on the Kansas plains.
Follow the rivers
Much of what meeting goers need is found along Wichita’s rivers, the Arkansas and Little Arkansas.
Between the rivers is a museum district that includes the Wichita Art Museum, Old Cowtown and Botanica, 17 acres of some 20 themed gardens. Each indoor venue is tied to an outdoor space, including a pavilion next to a burbling koi pond.
Where the two rivers converge stands what Santo calls “our Statue of Liberty,” the Keeper of the Plains, a 44-foot statue of a Native American chief. Weather permitting, most evenings, crowds gather as night falls and a ring of fire blazes at his feet for 15 minutes.
New ballpark will be event venue
Past the confluence, work has begun on a new minor-league ballpark that developers say will be a model for its peers. The 6,000-seat stadium is across the Arkansas River from the convention center. The convention center is attached to the Hyatt Regency Hotel. (A live cam attached to the hotel is trained on the ballpark site so fans can watch progress.) After it opens next April, the ballpark will be a year-round site for events.
The ballpark will be another place where Wichita can proudly wave its red, white and blue city flag. It’s everywhere, Santo says — on license plates, along city streets, in murals. The 1937 design is timeless.
Few cities wave their flag with such fervor. But, like other aspects of Wichita, the flag reflects the enthusiasm locals have for their city and their joy in sharing it.
“The resurgence of the flag was one of those grassroots efforts,” says Santo. “The people took it, and made it their own.”
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