Economic development in Wichita is at crossroads.
The Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, the county’s main economic development agency, is coming up on its 10th anniversary. The group’s parent, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, is about to go to the business community for money to fund it for the next five years.
Unlike the last time it sought funding, five years ago, there’s a lot of anxiety. Boeing is leaving. Hawker Beechcraft is working through bankruptcy. The economy remains stuck in first gear, and many remain concerned about the city’s long-term competitiveness in a globalizing world.
The chamber’s leaders have a fairly specific wish list to improve the city’s ability to win in the competitions for new factories and research labs. They want large, developed industrial sites; large, modern, empty buildings; and some kind of war chest and/or funding stream to help make deals.
But it’s not that simple. Those things are expensive and difficult to get politically. A lot of people in Wichita disagree on the need for such things, or don’t think they should have to pay for them.
So part of what the chamber wants is a community consensus that answers the question: How will Wichita compete – and how much?
This spring and summer, chamber representatives have talked with “impact players” in business, government and nonprofit organizations about their thoughts about what the community needs. The plan is to create a council of leaders who act as a think tank to set economic development priorities.
The idea is that whatever they decide can gain the political and financial momentum to actually happen.
Once that group is organized and makes a decision on the scope of the coalition’s activities for the next five years, the funding campaign in the fall will kick off. Getting the right people in place is critical to its success, said Gary Plummer, chamber president.
“It’s really more about leadership than about funding,” Plummer said. “If you can build the right leadership and keep it engaged, the sky’s the limit on what you’re able to accomplish.”
Chamber leaders are thinking back to the 1980s and early ’90s when movers and shakers took a stronger lead in setting direction for the community. Plummer said this leadership board would have a different function than the public and private leaders who already run and fund the coalition, which focuses narrowly on making deals.
“That leadership group went away in the mid-90s,” Plummer said. “That is the level of leadership we need to involve in this dialogue in order to make this move and shake loose some of these issues and see some progress over time. It’s not a governing board, not a duplicate of anything that GWEDC is doing, but more to focus on the big picture issues that are great opportunities for Wichita.”
Once this leadership council is in place, the train can start leaving the station: next the fundraising campaign, then hiring a permanent president of the GWEDC, then moves to fill gaps in the city’s economic development strategy.
There’s a real hunger for action, said Suzie Ahlstrand, interim president of the GWEDC.
When Wichita community leaders returned from last year’s city-to-city visit to Pittsburgh, where they examined how that city is transforming itself, there was real frustration, she said.
“We came back and people were really frustrated because we’ve done a lot of planning, lot of meetings, a lot of dissuasion and a lot of dialogue – ‘What are we going to get done?’ ” Ahlstrand said. “I am so excited about the leadership initiative that maybe we can start seeing some of these things move.”