Wichita’s African-American community took a step toward a hoped-for cultural and economic renaissance Tuesday, when the City Council approved about $660,000 to be spent on renovating the historic Dunbar Theatre.
The Dunbar, built in 1941, was once the centerpiece of a vibrant entertainment and business district serving traditionally black neighborhoods in northeast Wichita.
And residents are hoping that it will be that again.
“As a little girl I grew up in Wichita and all of downtown on that (northeast) side were all black businesses,” said Jennifer Brehon of the engineering firm DuBois Consulting. “We’d like to see that come back. It’ll keep our youth here because they’ll have something to look forward to.”
Brehon’s firm consulted on structural engineering for the Dunbar and also helped redevelop the 18th and Vine Jazz District, a center for African-American culture in Kansas City, Mo.
“We can create a district such as that,” Brehon said. “Then we won’t have our community running out somewhere else to be fed the cultural aspects of what we do as a community.”
Power Community Development Corp., a nonprofit group that has developed housing and the Save-A-Lot grocery store in northeast Wichita, has plans to raise about $5.2 million in private donations and government grants to renovate the Dunbar as an African-American themed movie and play house.
Power CDC hopes to have the theater renovated and reopened by 2020.
The $660,000 approved for the Dunbar project Tuesday comes from the city’s share of proceeds from selling the Save-A-Lot store and originated with federal grants, said John Hall, city housing director.
The project is expected to provide 29 temporary construction jobs and five ongoing full-time positions running the theater when it reopens.
Long term, the hope is that the Dunbar, at 1007 N. Cleveland, will serve as a catalyst sparking other entertainment and business activity in the surrounding neighborhood.
Several speakers at the meeting said a vibrant theater would serve not only the traditionally black neighborhoods, but also bring in visitors from across the city who now have little reason to venture into the northeast area.
“This is not just for one group of people,” said state Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, who was part of a crowd of about 40 who came to City Hall to support the project. “This facility will be a performing arts theater which will be inclusive of all individuals that would like to participate.”
The council unanimously voted the money for the Dunbar after an impassioned speech by council member Lavonta Williams.
“I was born and raised in Wichita and grew up every Saturday at the Dunbar Theater,” she said, recalling how she would buy a sucker at the concession stand and make it last all afternoon.
“What I’m afraid of is some kids don’t have those types of memories,” she said. “All the kids need a memory … There are certain memories I will never forget, and going to the Dunbar is one of them.”
Dunbar funding will be one of Williams’ last major acts as a council member. Because of term limits, she will leave office in January and turn the seat over to council member-elect Brandon Johnson.
“In 2020, I want to be able to come back to the City Council and to be able to say ‘Mayor and council, thank you, because the historic Dunbar Theatre area at 9th Street and Mathewson and Cleveland is now redeveloped as a visual and performing arts center,’” Williams said.