Wichita's economic future depends on growing and retaining talent, an urban-development specialist told an Orpheum crowd Thursday night.
And the onus falls on city leaders to help develop and retain it.
Carol Coletta, president of CEOs for Cities, a Chicago-based network of urban leaders dedicated to strengthening cities, was the guest speaker for the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.' s annual meeting.
If Wichita can't grow and retain its own young talent, bringing that talent together and giving them a chance to put their creativity to work, the city's economic future is jeopardized, Coletta said.
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"Show me any path to a strong nation that doesn't run right through a successful Wichita," she said. "You can't separate the success of America from the success of Wichita."
And what makes a city work is three things, Coletta said: quality of talent, quality of place and quality of opportunity.
"What drives those three factors? You do. Quality of leadership," she told the group.
Coletta's research targets the most-mobile Americans: 25- to 34-year-olds. The more education they have, the more mobile they are as they search for a community where they can live, laugh and employ their creative talents.
"Talent is the first of those three equals," she said. "Tell me the percentage of college graduates in a city and I'll tell you if that city is successful."
Increasing the percentage of college attainment by 1 point translates into an additional $460 million in personal income annually, Coletta said.
That's the talent cities must develop and retain, Coletta said. But they can't, without quality of place.
"Let's face it," Coletta said, "A lot of people in Wichita don't share your ambitions about a great downtown. We can't necessarily expect everyone to get it when it comes to what a good, vibrant, robust downtown can do for Wichita.
"But they do have ambitions around at least three things: more jobs for Wichita, more human capital for Wichita and a better brand and reputation for Wichita.
"Downtown can help fulfill all of the ambitions of jobs, talent and brand. So even if you don't care about downtown, you probably do care about the things downtown enables."
Here's why: Those 25- to 34-year-olds with talent essential to a city's growth and success are 33 percent more likely to live within a 3-mile radius of the central business district, Coletta said.
But, those urban neighborhoods must provide them opportunities to use their creativity and connect with their neighbors, Coletta said. Can residents put their talent to work and make themselves smarter by working with smart people?
"This is one of the most important reasons for supporting the work of downtown redevelopment," she said.
"You want talented young people to choose Wichita? You'd better have a robust downtown surrounded by robust neighborhoods. Investing in downtown is a bet that quality of place matters."
Wichita needs a brand as a place where life happens, Coletta said, a life that is "resetting," with vehicle miles traveled down for the first time in 50 years, the increase in cycling, the decline in 16- and 17-year-olds getting a license to drive, the decline of the traditional family.
"You don't have forever to get it done," Coletta said. "The trends are really clear. You can get on with building the kind of downtown you have planned, or you can get left behind....
"The competition is fierce; the job we have to do is big and time is short. I urge you to move in Wichita as quickly as you can to get the next phase of this downtown plan completed.
"And then, don't stop. Keep making it better. Because that's what your competition is doing."