Significant federal money might come to Wichita and south Kansas in the next two years for economic and manufacturing development, according to an announcement Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The federal government is designating south Kansas as a “manufacturing community” in a program called “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership,” said John Tomblin, a vice president at Wichita State University. In plainer language, Tomblin said, the federal government might invest in south Kansas to help factories and workers.
The federal decision makes Wichita and 27 counties in south-central and southeast Kansas eligible to receive a portion of $1.3 billion in new federal economic development dollars. Nationally, 11 other universities or government entities received a similar designation Wednesday.
“This is a pretty big deal,” Tomblin said. “It gives you a designation, and that gives you preferential consideration for part of $1.3 billion in federal development dollars.”
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There’s more going on here than merely another federal program fostering growth, said WSU president John Bardo.
“In the broader context, the United States is trying to rebuild its manufacturing base,” he said. “The government agrees that this needs to happen. They put out a series of requests for proposals, the goal of which is to re-create modern manufacturing in this country.”
With rebuilding “American made” as a motivation, this designation might send more dollars here, but it will also make it easier for Wichita and the region to get help from 11 government agencies to further the cause of advanced manufacturing, Bardo said.
One thing that he said caught the government’s attention, besides all the advanced manufacturers in Wichita and south Kansas, is how Wichita is building a new campus within WSU devoted to innovation and technology development.
The Wednesday announcement is not just about money, said Debra Franklin, one of the other WSU officials who worked extensively on the project with the Commerce Department. It is an affirmation by the federal government of Wichita’s advanced manufacturing, and its importance to national interests.
“If there were a list of 12 top manufacturing communities, and Wichita was not on it, and we were not given that preference that would be a really bad thing,” she said. “That would not be good.”
About 70 communities applied for the program.
Franklin is WSU’s director of business development for the office of research and technology transfer, and has worked on WSU’s role in promoting advanced manufacturing. Her own hope, she said, is that the money be used for business innovation and research development, because putting money there would create a multiplier effect on economic development.
But money also could be used for workforce training, supplier networks, infrastructure and site development, capital improvements, and finding ways to enhance international trade, she said.
“It is an opportunity not just for WSU but for public investment to support advanced manufacturing across the region,” she said. The money and benefits were won for south Kansas not only because Wichita has aviation companies but also oil and gas equipment manufacturers, and heavy equipment makers, such as Case New Holland, from Wichita, and Agco Corp., from Hesston.
Tomblin said he and a WSU team of researchers and academics wrote much of the proposal that earned the federal designation. But that happened, he said, after long consultations over the past six months involving officials from Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, officials from the state and federal commerce departments and others. Industries in the region also were heavily consulted, Franklin said.
Tomblin, WSU’s interim vice president for research and technology transfer, said no one yet knows how much money might come here, or when, or specifically how it might be used. Decisions probably will be made in the next two years, WSU officials said.
Some might question, in light of recent political debates about federal government spending, why WSU should try to bring federal money here, Bardo said.
“I understand that argument,” Bardo said. “But if you believe in smaller government, then I think it should be a smaller pie for everyone. But if it is not smaller for everyone, then we would be doing wrong if this money was there and we did not apply for it. If we don’t apply and get it, it will go to someone else. I only swore allegiance to help the people of this state, and not anyone else.”
The Commerce Department issued a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon saying that the program is “designed to revolutionize the way federal agencies leverage economic development funds.”
The program, the statement went on to say, “is designed to reward communities that best highlight their strengths and demonstrate they can combine their efforts around workforce training, infrastructure and research centers to implement an economic development plan that will attract, retain and expand manufacturing investment.”