The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition has purchased an option to buy a vacant 300-acre industrial park just south of Mid-Continent Airport.
The option covers John Dugan’s Skyway West industrial park off Maize Road between West 31st Street South and K-42, property that already has utility service. It is a big step, city and county officials say, toward becoming more competitive in attracting new industry. Without a large tract of land to offer, Wichita’s not a serious competitor for new industrial jobs, they say.
“It’s something that’s long overdue if we want to seriously compete in the economic development arena,” said Sedgwick County Commission chairman Dave Unruh. “We’ve had an awareness that a shovel-ready industrial site is a real need if we’re going to attract the jobs that we’re most interested in – primary manufacturing jobs.”
The option’s cost is $10,000, according to the coalition’s 2014 budget. Economic development officials wouldn’t elaborate on the prospective purchase price for the land, and coalition president Tim Chase said further details will be revealed to investors confidentially at the group’s Feb. 20 annual meeting.
However, Unruh said the option is “not short-term.”
Wichita Vice Mayor Pete Meitzner said he was surprised to learn that the option had been taken on the land.
“I knew we were looking seriously at something like that,” he said. “When I got on the council, I was surprised that we didn’t already have an industrial park, so it makes sense to me to do it in the fast-growing southwest part of town. Other communities have them. We don’t, and it’s clearly a problem.”
Communities that want to compete for jobs must have land like the Wichita tract to be taken seriously, said Dan Lara, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Commerce.
“When we do a project, space to either build a building or an all-new location is one of the things that companies look for when they’re looking to expand or change location,” Lara said.
“These are companies that have outgrown their space and need more or new space. It makes total sense that the folks in Wichita would want to have that kind of land available.”
This deal marks the second serious recent effort to obtain available industrial land for economic development. Four years ago, the Sedgwick County Commission decided against buying a multiacre industrial park in Bel Aire that county staff had recommended.
County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said the 2009 Bel Aire proposal died because of cost and because of “a variety of questions that couldn’t be answered.”
“A whole host of issues came up and it wasn’t just me,” Peterjohn said. “A number of unanswered questions came up, including the other industrial parks in the community. The cost was a significant factor in the county deciding not to proceed.”
The land option is listed as an “asset” on the 2014 coalition budget as a “real estate mega site.” Another $20,000 is budgeted for an engineering study of the land.
The option is a small part of the coalition’s proposed $1.55 million 2014 budget, which includes $986,305 in private-sector donations and $606,120 from the public sector, including the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County. There is no line item in the budget for land acquisition.
Chase said the option is merely a starting point for Wichita in the fast-moving competitive world of job recruitment, where prospects want a new building “yesterday.”
“The nature of the economic development business is to move quickly,” he said. “We think there is a need for a large-scale site that would put us in a better position to quickly compete for projects.”
The site has the necessary utilities, Chase said, but is missing rail service. A rail line, however, is nearby.
“It would have to come across the ditch in a project,” he said.
Rail service is key to landing an industrial prospect, Chase said.
“With some projects it’s mandatory, but with others it’s a hedge against transportation costs so when gas gets at or above $4 a gallon,” he said. “That’s when we start seeing more inquiries that rail is desirable but not mandatory.”
That’s why Chase isn’t ready to declare that the site would give Wichita a major advantage in jobs recruitment.
“We have to get a lot smarter and be able to convey more specifically what the property can or cannot do,” Chase said. “Ideally, we’d like to get to the point with a set of construction drawings and get contractors to bid so we know what it (rail service) might cost.”
Unruh was noncommittal about Sedgwick County’s financial participation in buying the land, if a serious prospect emerges. Meitzner said the city should “kick the tires” if the GWEDC finds a prospect for the land.
“I think there are so many considerations to take under advisement if that happens,” Unruh said. “I’d be hard pressed to give you an answer right now.
“We have some attitudes in this county commission that’s a stiff posture against any incentives in economic development. We’ve got other commissioners who want to look at these deals individually, see if they make sense, see if they have a sufficient return on investment.
“I believe we’d be willing to discuss the potential of buying this land, the benefits, if a prospect comes forward.”