Saying it’s time to speed up the area’s economic growth, senior Wichita business leaders went public with a plan Friday to reorganize and broaden the area’s economic development apparatus.
They also changed personnel: Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., will head a new economic development umbrella group, the Greater Wichita Partnership.
Tim Chase is out as head of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition.
The Greater Wichita Partnership will oversee the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, Wichita Downtown Development Corp. and committees working on education and entrepreneurship – and the partnership could eventually extend to include other groups throughout the community and region.
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The plan was announced at a meeting of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Council, which is led by Intrust Bank CEO Charlie Chandler and former Spirit AeroSystems CEO Jeff Turner.
The reorganization appeared to have the support from at least some local business and government leaders, dozens of whom were at the meeting held Friday morning at the Ambassador Hotel.
The move to restructure was prompted largely by years of frustration with the weak rebound in the Wichita economy, Chandler said. Wichita still remains about 20,000 jobs behind its 2008 peak, according to the Kansas Department of Labor.
Local leaders didn’t want to point fingers at any one person or entity, saying that wasn’t fair.
“We went through the toughest recession in more than 50 years,” said Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell.
But Chandler said the community feels a sense of urgency in accelerating its rebound by making its economic development organization more effective – and more inclusive.
A downtown development organization and a jobs recruitment and expansion organization will both remain in existence, keep their staffs and retain their own boards and missions.
Where Fluhr and his staff will be housed is still undetermined, said Vera Bothner, a spokeswoman for the effort. Also, she said, Fluhr’s salary is still being negotiated, but will be paid by private funds.
The size and scope of the Greater Wichita Partnership may grow as other economic development-related efforts have proliferated in recent years, such as Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus, a technology start-up community, an export growth effort and the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, a process for key local industries to identify hurdles to growth.
The new umbrella group would be better equipped to aid those efforts, said Gary Schmitt, chairman of the GWEDC.
How exactly the Greater Wichita Partnership will be structured and what will be included is still unclear, Chandler said. It’s closer to the beginning than the end.
Some leaders on Friday pointed as a model to similar umbrella groups elsewhere, such as the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which includes traditional company recruitment and expansion, as well as downtown development, international trade assistance, work force development and professional development.
Fluhr said he will focus on keeping the new umbrella organization accountable and effective, similar to the consistent and systematic progress that downtown is undergoing.
Chase was at Friday’s meeting and was gracious about the change. He will remain as a consultant for two months, and said he would likely move back to Texas.
“You can’t have two CEOs,” Chase said. “That’s just not going work.”
He praised Fluhr as a “phenomenal choice.”
Friday’s announced plan is a reboot of the community’s economic efforts following much community soul searching about how to restart an economy stuck in a deep downturn in aircraft production.
The job of the GWEDC – formed in 2003 – is to aid companies seeking to locate, expand or stay in Sedgwick County by negotiating financial incentives and coordinating assistance. Chase became its president in 2013. He came to Kansas after a long tenure as head of the chamber of commerce in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Chase’s current salary was unavailable Friday, but a 2013 tax form filed by Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce showed that he was paid $151,776 in salary and $16,732 in other compensation for a job that started in late February of that year.
During its more than a decade of life, the GWEDC said last year, it had helped industries create more than 20,000 jobs and invest more than $1.4 billion – which exceeded its goals. However, the GWEDC’s success rate since the recession has been very slow.
In contrast, the redevelopment of downtown Wichita has been on a roll over the last few years, despite the economic downturn, with a number of new apartment projects and office renovations.
Several major projects are just getting underway, including the redevelopment of Union Station; turning the 125 N. Market building into office space, and the Exchange Place and River Vista projects, which include apartments and retail and office space.
The Wichita Downtown Development Corp., led by Fluhr since 2008, is the key group facilitating those efforts. Fluhr came to Wichita after 17 years with the downtown organization in Baton Rouge, La., and is known for his energy and personable manner.
Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition
Mission: Recruit business to Wichita and aid existing companies that want to stay and expand in Sedgwick County by negotiating financial incentives and coordinating assistance. It is also responsible for marketing the nine-county region.
Budget: The GWEDC is a public/private entity. The private sector supplies $1.5 million per year for salaries, travel and other expenses, while the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County each contribute $300,000 per year. This doesn’t include any financial incentives paid to companies by local governments.
Location: It is housed at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, 350 W. Douglas.
Staff: It has a staff of six.
Wichita Downtown Development Corp.
Mission: Facilitate redevelopment and revitalization in downtown Wichita. The agency keeps track of empty space and can be a first point of contact for prospects. It maintains relationships with key people in government and business and acts as the public face for revitalization.
Location: 507 E. Douglas
Budget: Its budget is about $650,000, which is largely funded by a special property tax levied on downtown businesses.
Staff: It has a staff of five.