It may come as a surprise to some locals, but there are those who see Wichita as an example of civic progress.
A city-to-city delegation from Fort Wayne, Ind., and the surrounding area traveled to Wichita to see a riverfront and downtown in redevelopment and an economic development effort that works fairly well.
On Thursday afternoon, the delegates from Indiana were packed into the conference room at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce to hear from Suzie Ahlstrand, interim president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.
She described the coalition’s complicated structure, budget and goals for the next five years.
She acknowledged that Wichita’s effort has been hindered by limited incentives, a lack of shovel-ready industrial sites and a lack of trust with economic development organizations in surrounding counties.
The Indiana delegates will get lectures on Wichita’s downtown development, riverfront development, WaterWalk, and tourism and convention development.
The visit is similar to the same intense “this worked, this didn’t, and this is what we’re trying to fix” sessions that Wichitans got when they traveled in recent years to Richmond, Va.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Oklahoma City; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Omaha.
Nelson Peters, a county commissioner in Allen County, where Fort Wayne is located, said they picked Wichita because of its similarity to Fort Wayne. But Wichita is a little larger and more advanced in some development areas, he said.
Fort Wayne sits in the northeast corner of Indiana and has a population of 250,000, about two-thirds the size of Wichita.
Both are anxious to create the kind of downtown that will attract young people. Both are high-wage manufacturing cities dealing with slow growth.
Tom Smith, president of the Fort Wayne City Council, said that there is a real hunger in Fort Wayne to turn the riverfront into a place that offers shops, restaurants and hotels.
But Smith said that while visits to other cities are helpful by showing specific solutions, it’s always hard to bring those solutions home.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “But we haven’t given up. We’re getting very close to a structure for riverfront development.”