Politics & Government

Century II activists launch petition drive; need 12,500-plus signatures to force vote

Supporters of an initiative petition to save Century II from destruction came to their kickoff event Monday with 200 yard signs — and left with none.

More than that many people stopped by to pick up petitions aimed at forcing City Hall to preserve the 51-year-old structure, targeted for demolition in the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan, details of which will be released Tuesday.

The petition proposed by the Save Century II group would prevent the city government from destroying any historically significant city-owned buildings without a public vote, specifically naming Century II and the former library as two buildings that would have to be protected.

Petition drivers got some bad news about the number of signatures they’ll need to gather to force that ordinance onto the ballot.

The original estimate was slightly more than 5,000, based on 10% of the 50,214 voters who cast ballots in the November city election.

The actual number they’ll need is 12,554, according to Sedgwick County officials. That represents 25% of the November voters.

The reason for the difference is the type of petition.

If this were a referendum seeking to overturn an action by the Wichita City Council, they’d only need 10% — but to pass an initiative and create law requires 25%.

The 12,554 is more than four times as many signatures as supporters needed to put a marijuana decriminalization initiative on the ballot in 2014.

That petition drive only needed 2,928 signatures, because turnout in 2014 was much lighter than in last year’s city election, which included a hotly contested mayoral race.

Celeste Racette, the daughter of a former mayor who’s leading the Save Century II campaign, was undeterred.

Racette said she got 6,000 names on an informal online petition. “I don’t think doubling that number will be too difficult,” she said.

Unlike the marijuana initiative, which was done on a shoestring budget by a small group, the Save Century II movement is operating a full-scale campaign with yard signs, advertising and a downtown headquarters.

The campaign is supported by Bill Warren, the former owner of Wichita’s Warren Theater chain, who has offered his company’s design services for free to find a new use for Century II if the city goes forward with a new performing arts and convention center, the key pieces of the Riverfront plan.

Racette said office space for the campaign at 435 N. Broadway is being donated by Wichita developer and philanthropist Colby Sandlian, who has spent more than $1 million underwriting free Saturday admission at the Wichita Art Museum.

The office will be open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays for volunteers to pick up and drop off petitions, and to get the notary stamps needed on each page, she said.

The group bought a half-page ad in Sunday’s Eagle to promote its kickoff event, held at noon Monday at Main and Douglas in front of City Hall.

Among the supporters who showed up to get petitions Monday was Michael Andra, owner of FM-107.9, a country-music radio station.

He said he plans “to do as much as I can do” to support the campaign on the station, and he thinks his listeners support saving Century II.

“We’re not the performing arts crowd, we’re the country music crowd,” he said. “My idea for performing arts is give them the old library. Let’s let them do whatever they want with that.”

Racette said she was pleased at the numbers who braved Monday’s cold weather, which according to the U.S. Weather Service was 39 degrees with a wind chill of 30.

City Council member Brandon Johnson, who is City Hall’s representative on the Riverfront group, said although he doesn’t support the petition drive, he went to talk to voters about why they were there.

He said the city’s performing arts groups have repeatedly found Century II outdated and inadequate for modern theatrical presentations.

“I’d hate to make a decision to force our performing arts community into facility that’s not sufficient now, nor for the future,” he said.

At Tuesday’s Riverfront plan reveal, “We’ll have the opportunity to see what a real vision looks like,” Johnson said.

He said the city would have to spend upwards of $100 million to preserve the blue-roofed roundhouse and get it in shape for re-use, with no guarantee anyone would want it.

Also, he said replacement of Century II is forecast to bring in three times as much revenue as the one plan that considered keeping it — $9 million to $11 million a year versus $3 million to $4 million.

He said when he talked to the Save Century II supporters, “many of them did not care about the revenue aspect, they just wanted to keep the facility.”

Restaurateur Jon Rolph, chairman of the Riverfront planning group, said he respects the vision of city leaders who created Century II more than 50 years ago, but it has to be replaced “if we want to maintain performing arts as a pride point for the community.”

“If the community (of Wichita) wants to accept deteriorating performing arts facilities, that’s their choice,” he said.

He said businesses will locate to where young talented people want to live — and they want amenities like top-tier performing arts.

Michael O’Donnell, the county representative on the Riverfront group, said he came to listen to voters and ended up signing the petition.

“I believe it’s important that City Hall allow this monumental issue to be decided at the ballot box,” O’Donnell said.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.