TOPEKA — Increasing exports is the best way to create jobs in south-central Kansas, according to a group of business leaders. But in order to do that, smaller and midsize companies have to join in on global trade.
A 10 percent increase in exports would produce more jobs for south-central Kansas than if Wichita could attract a big-name firm to the city, said Tim Chase, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.
“That small incremental increase results in thousands of jobs. So the culture of, if you will, about thinking about economic development has to shift,” Chase told the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
“Are there resources that if we marshal them can impact the outcome of increased exports?” Chase said.
Chase’s comments were part of presentations by the leaders of the Wichita Regional Export Planning Initiative. That effort is part of a larger Global Cities Initiative led by the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Wichita was selected by Brookings in the fall to participate in the program meant to help metropolitan regions boost exports.
Every $1 billion in export revenue supports 5,590 jobs, according to a February report from the International Trade Administration. Nationwide, 11.3 million jobs were supported by exports in 2013.
Exports supported 33,201 jobs in Sedgwick County in 2012, according to the group’s presentation.
Karyn Page, president and CEO of Kansas Global Trade Services, said the planning team was not requesting assistance from the Legislature but wanted to spread awareness of the initiative.
The group plans to seek $50,000 each from Wichita and Sedgwick County for the project.
The initiative is a four-year process that had its first meeting last week. Its leaders will spend the next year talking to business owners in order to formulate an export strategy for Sedgwick and nine surrounding counties.
“We are gathering information to build a plan that results in an export support ecosystem,” Page said. “We have to build the entire plan based on what companies need, what companies use, how they use that. … We can’t just go charging out and build that.”
Brookings will help guide the Wichita region group through the process and then next year will help leaders work on strategies to attract more foreign investment.
Brad McDearman, the policy director at Brookings who oversees the national project, explained in a phone call that local governments can help identify which companies are poised for growth, then help connect those companies with state and federal export programs.
“It’s at the metro level where they really know these companies,” McDearman said.
Other economic development strategies are still important, but exports have been traditionally overlooked by municipal governments in the United States and that strategy presents unique advantages, he said.
“You don’t have to pay incentives to it the way that you do to attract a new company. It’s kind of sitting right there for you, because you’ve got companies that know they need to do it,” McDearman said. “They need a nudge.”
The thinking behind the push to expand exports by Brookings and other groups is that 95 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States. By ignoring overseas markets, a company loses out on the majority of the world’s consumers.
Keith Lawing, executive director of the Regional Economic Area Partnership, pointed to Johnson Controls, the air conditioner manufacturer based in Wichita.
“It’s a seasonal business. If they can expand exports, that becomes a year-round business, because when we’re in winter half the world is in summer,” Lawing said.
He told lawmakers on the committee to focus less on competition from Missouri and instead to look at ways to beat competition from Europe and South America.
Sen. Julia Lynn, R-Olathe, chair of the committee, was impressed with the presentations.
“I just think it’s a fresh perspective of the economic development debate we’re having this session,” Lynn said. “It’s like a new pair of eyes have come and seen something that we haven’t been focused on this session.”
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, was excited about the push to get smaller companies to export as a way to grow jobs in the Wichita area.
“We’ve got to do something different. We’ve got to think out of the box. We’ve got to think globally and I see this as a great catalyst in doing so,” Faust-Goudeau said.