Development in Wichita, Kan., known as the “Air Capital of the World” for its aircraft manufacturing, has taken flight even as the larger economy has stalled. Wichita’s new developments are due in large part to government spending on education (a $370 million local school-bond issue) and the 2001 formation of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation to revitalize downtown—initiatives that have kept cranes in the air.

“A major asset is that we’ve completed a downtown master plan”—known as Project Downtown—“to keep everyone on the same page for the next 10 to 15 years,” Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture vice president Joe Johnson says. A 2010 collaboration between the city and the Downtown Development Corp., the Project Downtown plan includes multifamily housing, entertainment venues, and other amenities.

One Project Downtown development is the subject of some controversy: WaterWalk, a mixed-use, $100 million development along the banks of the Arkansas River that includes the new Convention and Visitors Bureau and a $12 million Fairfield Inn and Suites that opened last year. After years of stops and starts, the WaterWalk project has led some locals to voice skepticism about its ability to revitalize the city center—particularly since it competes with Old Town. This cluster of brick and limestone buildings dating from 1870 to 1930 was rehabilitated in the 1980s; some locals wonder whether Wichita can support two entertainment districts.

Nevertheless, the galleries, theaters, and other amenities of Old Town got a boost from the Intrust Bank Arena, for which the construction was funded by a voter-approved, countywide one percent sales-and-use tax financing plan. Located in a 5-acre entertainment complex, the arena is accented with design elements and materials that recall Wichita’s agrarian history.

Aviation is still big business in Wichita. Hawker Beechcraft and Cessna call the city home, and other aircraft manufacturers operate here. “The consensus among industry analysts is that general aviation manufacturing recovery should strengthen in 2012,” says Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition research director Duane Smith. There’s some evidence of a nascent recovery in the recently completed National Center for Aviation Training as well as in Airbus’s expanded Engineering Design Center.

In the Air Capital, buildings need protection from tornadoes, regardless of use. “The building codes do not really address tornadoes, but virtually every house in our area is built with a basement,” says Spangenberg Phillips Tice Architecture partner Greg Tice, AIA. The 2008 school bond requires FEMA shelters—rooms reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete to withstand an EF-5 tornado—in the new buildings. “A FEMA shelter will add about $55 per square foot to the cost of building,” Tice says.

Locals remain bullish on Wichita. “Added strength and activity in downtown will in turn build strength throughout the city and help attract new businesses to the area,” says WDM Architects associate principal and director of business development Jason Van Hecke, AIA. “Another strength is the large number of people in public and private leadership positions dedicated to the success of Wichita. These are people that have grown up in Wichita or lived here for a long time who are truly looking to make sure Wichita succeeds.”