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Wichita’s Leadership Council: the ‘right people’ to get things done

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, May 8, 2013, at 10:40 p.m.

Movers and shakers, the powers-that-be. In Wichita, there’s a new name: the Leadership Council.

Despite nearly unending public conversation about what’s wrong with Wichita, progress often moves at snail speed or not at all.

The Leadership Council, proponents say, will improve that track record in a few key areas: adding more jobs, adding different jobs and improving workers’ ability to do those jobs.

Its task is to break down barriers that are beyond the power of existing institutions to break through, said co-chairman Charlie Chandler, CEO of Intrust Bank.

The council, created by the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, consists of about 100 mostly private-sector executives but also includes leaders from government, education and nonprofit sectors. Even a couple of labor unions are represented. They are on the council because they contributed to last year’s campaign to fund the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.

Created in 2012, the council has $300,000 per year to spend as it sees fit, such as on consultants or lobbyists. The money comes from the members’ own five-year financial commitments.

Chandler and co-chairman Jeff Turner, former CEO of Spirit AeroSystems, bring credibility to the council, said Jack DeBoer, chairman of hotel chain Value Place.

“They got the right people,” DeBoer said. “Charlie and Jeff are good leaders and good friends. And the group is the right people to have. There’s a lot of freewheeling discussion, but once they decide, they can get things done.”

Still focusing

At this point, precisely how the council will accomplish its goals is vague. Chandler said that will develop as time goes on.

“Don’t know, yet,” he said. “Great question. It could be anything.”

One likely job is figuring out how to fund a war chest, a large pot of money used to close deals for new industries.

In recent years, the GWEDC said a war chest is critical for competing against other communities, but local officials have shied away from the touchy subject of funding it. The Leadership Council might help, either as a political force or as a creative problem solver, Chandler said.

“Other communities that have been very successful have come up with (war chests) in various ways, not necessarily from taxation,” he said. “That might be the kind of thing we say to the GWEDC: ‘Let’s talk about that. Show us best practices.’ ”

Plummer gave examples of a leadership council in action from his time as a chamber executive in Springfield, Ill.

It helped come up with the subsidies that landed a direct flight to Washington, D.C. And when it learned of a plan by Union Pacific to triple freight traffic through town, it coordinated a local effort that resulted in a new plan that included consolidated train tracks and more rail bridges.

More famous examples often cited by proponents include Atlanta’s leadership council helping land the 1996 Olympics, Denver’s helping win approval for Denver International Airport, and Pittsburgh’s to push its downtown renewal.

The Wichita chamber’s stated goal is to accelerate growth in Wichita to put it in the top 25 percent of 366 metro areas for economic performance within a generation. It currently sits somewhere between 104th and 244th depending on who is doing the measuring, Plummer said.

No conflict

The Leadership Council is on a “separate track” – in Plummer’s words – from traditional agencies and groups that make things happen, such as the city of Wichita or the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. But because the people who make up the council overlap so heavily with these other groups and because the Leadership Council is deliberately only tackling established issues, potential conflict will be limited, Plummer said.

It meets as a group once per quarter, but expects to develop task forces as it comes to grips with particular projects or initiatives.

It’s met three times, so far. It decided on its priorities and heard economic development plans from Wichita State University President John Bardo and from GWEDC Chairman Steve Sharp.

Consultant Mike McCarthy of R&M Resource Development, who advised the Springfield Chamber a decade ago and the Wichita Chamber before last year’s fundraising campaign, suggested the leadership council idea to Plummer. McCarthy said the council was a way to harness the talent of top corporate CEOs to aid their own communities.

The idea is to centralize the thinking of the community’s most influential people, breaking down silos between the various groups and agencies that touch economic development. It harks back to the days of 50 or 100 years ago when decisions could be made by a relatively small group of people for the benefit of the whole community, he said.

“In the olden days the ‘Committee of 100’ could put their money on the table,” McCarthy said. “Over the last 20 or 30 years we’ve lost that. Wichita, today, is standing on some pretty big shoulders and now is the time for the current generation to step forward with time and treasure to better their community.”

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or dvoorhis@wichitaeagle.com.

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