Before she called Wichita her home, India native Sudha Tokala grew up in South Africa as Sudha Kolli and traveled the world with her father, who worked for the United Nations.
She’d venture to places such as Rome, Sydney and New York and says she kept having the same thought as she looked up at buildings that reached into the sky.
"I would look at high-rise buildings thinking, oh, who owns those?"
Now Tokala, a 46-year-old pharmacist-turned-developer, owns four of her own in downtown Wichita.
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Though she had a brief — and public — moment of doubt last week when she said she’d sell her newly-purchased buildings, Tokala now is proceeding with her Kansas Health Science Center.
"Sometimes destiny, I guess . . . has its way."
Tokala owns the former Finney State Office Building, which is two joined buildings at 130 S. Market and 230 E. William. She also owns the former Henry’s building at 124 S. Broadway, Broadway Plaza at 105 S. Broadway and Sutton Place at 209 E. William St. The buildings are clustered in one area of downtown.
Tokala says she’s discovered that business and real estate are "probably my passion."
"Back in India, parents kind of direct you into what you’re doing," she says of her father choosing her medical career.
Tokala says she has some skills that align better with business.
"I grasp things quickly," she says. "I’m a numbers person. I feel like I can see the big picture. . . . I feel like it’s my calling probably more than pharmacy."
Her father wanted all of his children educated in America. Tokala’s brother eventually attended the University of Kansas. She had graduated from pharmacy school in India then followed her brother to KU, first to study health sciences, "just like what I’m trying to start."
Tokala graduated with a master’s in pharmaceutical chemistry.
"Kansas became home."
She married Chandra Tokala and accompanied him to his residency and fellowship at Harvard University.
"At that time, it felt like we were missing home," she says of Kansas.
By then, they had two children, and they knew they wanted to return to the state. Chandra Tokala applied for medical positions at a few places.
"The first offer came from Wichita, so we moved here," Sudha Tokala says. She says she finds the city "quaint."
"It’s the perfect place to raise two kids," she says. "Wichita has been good to us, truthfully."
Tokala first became involved with business ventures in 2010. She bought land on the east side for a Hampton Inn, though she ended up putting it at the airport. She’s now a partner in SpringHill Suites by Marriott there as well.
She’s purchased land in Andover where she has duplexes in the works. In Derby, she’s planning some single-family homes. They’re on the back burner, though.
"Right now my passion is in downtown Wichita."
Downtown buildings may become a school
Sudha Tokala, the pharmacist who has been on something of a downtown building buying spree, has purchased another property and is now sharing a small glimpse into her plans for four buildings. (Feb. 8, 2018) McClatchybrader@wichitaeagle.com
Tokala first became interested in downtown when the city asked for bids on the former Finney building.
"I got that building, and I had no idea what I was going to do with it."
She says with all the renovations the state had put into the building, it struck her that "it would be really good for educational purposes."
"I’m into health care, so I thought pharmacy first."
She began expanding on the idea.
"You have to have a vision that you’re going to open something that’s actually going to grow," Tokala says.
She began thinking about advanced medical, dental, optometry, podiatry and nurse anesthetist programs.
Tokala says she saw that the state did a feasibility study that showed Kansas needs another medical college to produce more physicians and contacted the consultant who did the study.
"The need in rural Kansas is great," she says.
Tokala says at that point, she realized, "Well, this can’t just be a one building and done."
She began collecting the buildings around the Finney building.
Tokala says she knows there are complaints that there’s not a downtown grocery. She says an educational facility will help attract people, including residents, who in turn will make it attractive to more businesses to locate downtown.
She plans a grocery component in the former Henry’s building, which will have a food hall concept with food for sale and restaurants intermingled in what she sees as a gathering place for all of downtown and beyond.
As Tokala furthered her plans for the school and food hall and renovating 400,000 square feet of older space, she says a daunting feeling set in that made her doubt her plans. Vandalism frustrations at the buildings didn’t help.
At the same time, people began to approach her to buy the buildings.
She says she’d already done the hard work of making Sutton Place whole again after each of its floors had been sold off as condos.
"Very appealing, suddenly they become," she says.
Tokala says she’d spent almost $5 million to buy the buildings outright.
"No bank will give you money to buy them."
Then someone — Tokala won’t say who — made an offer.
"A good offer," she says.
A reporter happened to call about the same time, and a somewhat perplexed Tokala said she planned to sell.
Then came an outpouring of support, Tokala says, including from the governor, associates in the medical community and a developer who is now going to take part of her development demands off her plate.
"Everybody has been very supportive," Tokala says.
She says the developer wants to remain silent for now.
The center is in the planning stages, and construction should begin in the middle of 2019.
"It’ll be open in 2021," Tokala says.
She has recommitted to the project with a zeal that surprises even her.
Tokala is not a morning person but finds herself eagerly getting to her Broadway Plaza office by 6:30 a.m. to work on the project she now intends to see through.
"It’s what gets me out of bed."
Reach Carrie Rengers at 316-268-6340 or email@example.com.