A conversation with Gary Schmitt

08/09/2014 7:08 PM

11/11/2014 8:41 AM

Gary Schmitt was getting ready to start college at Emporia State, and he needed a job.

So before classes started, he and a friend went to Emporia for a visit.

“Our goal was to have a job by noon and then we could go play golf,” Schmitt remembers. “We went around and talked to a number of banks, and we both had jobs by noon. So that meant we could both play golf, and it wasn’t a wasted trip.”

That trip led to a career in banking.

Schmitt, who grew up in Hutchinson, has worked for several Kansas banks over the years – Citizens National Bank, Eureka Federal Savings, Central Bank and Trust and Kansas State Bank and Trust – starting in collection for delinquent accounts and later savings and loans.

Now, he’s division director of commercial banking and real estate lending for Intrust Bank, where he’s been for about the last 20 years.

Schmitt is also the chair of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, a public-private partnership that was founded in 2003.

The GWEDC one of several business groups in Wichita drafting a job development plan for the city that would be funded through part of a proposed 1 percent sales tax.

Voters will decide in November if they want to pass the tax, which would collect $250 million to develop water resources, $39.8 million for public transit, $27.8 million for streets, and $80 million for job development.

As the GWEDC chair, Schmitt describes his role as a facilitator.

“I’m somebody that brings the right people to the table. This is going to be a huge effort for our community, and we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right people. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

What has the process been like developing the plan so far?

The first thing we realized is that if we continue to do what we’ve been doing, we’re going to get the same results. So we’ve got to change what we’ve been doing. The last 90 to 120 days we’ve spent talking to people, attending ... meetings and getting an idea of what the community says is important when it comes to economic development and jobs.

What’s the next step now that we know the sales tax proposal will be on the ballot in November?

I think we’re going to have to get out there and educate the public about what the job program will really look like and how we’re going to actually produce jobs. We’re going to have to go to the business community and expand our horizons, be inclusive in this effort of growing jobs, and a lot of that will depend on the conversations we have with Wichita State University and what their plans are. But I really envision a number of organizations coming together and working on this plan.

Our next process will be exploring that even more with what WSU and the innovation center is doing and then coordinate that with other groups like (the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s) Leadership Council, Wichita Independent Business Association and a number of other community organizations.

City officials said the goal is to gain 20,000 jobs. Is that realistic?

I think the 20,000 job number is very realistic over the next five to seven years. I think in order to get that, to achieve that type of result, we’re going to have to have a very focused plan. We’re going to have to take advantage of the resources we have in our community and develop additional resources. Those resources may be real estate solutions, it could be job training, it may be training in advanced manufacturing.

People use the phrase of “industry clusters.” I think we’re going to have to figure out where our opportunities are and the different industrial segments, whether it’s in advanced manufacturing, high tech, exporting, re-shoring, any of those areas, and then once we have a plan, then we can get very specific in those areas.

This exporting piece is going to be very interesting because Wichita is the third most dependent community in the United States on exports. If you look, the majority is aviation-related. The question is whether we can take that expertise in aviation and translate that to other industries. It may be related to advanced manufacturing, but if we can increase the export dollars we have coming out of our community it’s going to provide us the diversification that we need over the long run.

Why is diversification important?

The last 10 years, we’ve had 1 percent growth in jobs. You could overlay the unemployment in the aviation industry over (those numbers) and you can see we’ve had some wonderful upticks but we’ve also had some big declines. We’ve got to figure out ways to limit our exposure to those swings and the best way to do that is by diversification and finding jobs in other areas – not to ignore the aviation sector – but we’ve got to determine what other areas we have expertise and resources in, and I feel very confident that with WSU’s help we’re going to find those industry clusters and develop them for our existing employment base and our young professionals in the future.

How does the GWEDC work with companies for recruitment to Wichita?

Whenever you have a prospect, the first thing you do is find out what resources they need. And it’s usually workforce. It’s usually that they’re looking for employees, they’re looking to expand their business and for people with certain skills. Once we’ve determined we have the employees, the second piece of that is probably location. Is there a building that fits the needs? Is there a location that has the infrastructure, electric, gas, water, sewer, that is needed for manufacturing? Those are really the key things, and we need to make sure they have those resources available and can get them relatively easy.

What are some of the specific things that would be part of job development?

One of the things we’ve talked about is looking at summer job opportunities for young people and internships. I am very encouraged and a big supporter of internship programs for kids. My son had an internship that he had with a manufacturing company in town, and after he was out of college, he went full time with them. I think it was a great opportunity for him to get to know a company, for a company to get to know him. It reinforced his thoughts and ideas about what his career was going to be because he had worked in the field, so I think we’ve got to provide more of those opportunities.

How do we make sure our kids and our grandkids have jobs in Wichita? I think that’s something we need to think about. We’re losing too many jobs to these other communities. We’ve got to figure out how to retain those kids, those young professionals and just utilizing our resources better.

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

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