There is a lot of hope floating around Wichita these days.
But how much is realistic? Can Wichita advance a couple of levels and become a great midsized city in the near future? What does that even look like?
Ask 10 people what a great city looks like, and you’ll get 10 different answers: more bike paths, top-tier minor league sports, a Cheesecake Factory, more direct flights or, maybe, envy on your friend’s face when you mention you’ve been offered a job there.
But there are some answers from local and national experts on what makes a city great: cohesive community leadership; a dynamic economy that is broadly shared; a tied-in education system; productive entrepreneurs; more people coming in than leaving, particularly educated young adults and professionals; a lively cultural scene; plentiful recreation; a sense of positivity and pride.
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That’s a lot, and Wichita has made progress on most of those criteria in the past three or four years. People who have seen a lot of similar cities are encouraged by what’s going on here.
“We’re well on our way,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of Greater Wichita Partnership, the public/private organization responsible for economic development in the county and region.
Where to start
Everything starts with government and business leadership pulling together in the right direction, Fluhr said. This has been Wichita’s biggest advantage for at least a decade.
Wichita has had a master plan for downtown redevelopment since 2010, but activity accelerated in the past few years.
In 2014, Wichita State University started an effort to become more of an economic development engine with the Innovation Campus and more programs to connect its research and students with companies.
In 2015, major efforts were launched to solve bottlenecks for important regional industries, to boost exports, to better connect schools and colleges with the needs of the economy and to rekindle entrepreneurism.
By 2016, those efforts started to bear fruit and multiply. It’s tied together through, or allied with, Fluhr’s group, which has ties throughout the region’s businesses and governments.
“When you look at a city that’s hitting benchmarks, going from one level to the next, that’s not happenstance,” Fluhr said. “There are strategies driving that.”
He said Wichita has received visits from other cities wanting to know more about Wichita.
“Tulsa has been in here repeatedly and asking how are we getting this progress,” Fluhr said. “When they walk away, and they have said this to us, that the cohesion between the public and private sector is something they wished they had more of.”
If a city is creating jobs and people are feeling prosperous, that flows over into everything else.
Plentiful jobs give people a sense that they can move to something better. It also tends to lead to higher wages and attracts people from outside the city.
Wichita has added 15,000 to 20,000 jobs since the economy bottomed out in 2011. Pay has recently started to creep up.
But it’s been a very slow rebound. In a public update last July on research into the challenges Wichita faces, analyst James Chung of Reach Advisors tried to quantify where Wichita stands.
Wichita isn’t Dallas or Boston. It’s midsize and not on a coast, and it shouldn’t realistically be compared to those cities.
But that still leaves plenty of company for Wichita – at least 33 cities, from Akron, Ohio to Visalia, Calif., depend mainly on a single industry. The 33 have seen slow job growth, slow wage growth and a steady outflow of young adults.
But Chung identified four cities that are seeing outsized growth: Des Moines and Cedar Rapids in Iowa, Oklahoma City and Omaha. They have a vibrancy that can be felt.
One of the big differences between these four cities and the others: the amount and speed of business investment. It reflects the vitality of business creation and growth.
Wichita, he said, is making good progress in finding money and speeding up the churn of that money through the economy.
But a healthy overall economy isn’t enough. It needs to be accompanied by diversification – economic, geographic and demographic – say several of the experts.
The most dynamic cities have several engines that power growth. When one industry is down, the others can be chugging ahead.
Wichita has wanted to diversify its economy beyond aerospace since the Eisenhower administration. It has a number of other clusters, from electrical machinery to food processing to oil and gas production.
In the past two years, the Blueprint for Regional Growth has brought together companies in different clusters – advanced manufacturing and materials, agriculture, aerospace, data and IT, health care, oil and gas, and logistics – to see whether they can solve common problems and spark some growth.
And geographically, a revitalizing city can’t put all of its effort into one area, say downtown, said John Bardo, president of Wichita State University.
“You can’t just do downtown,” he said. “It has to be part of a package. It has to be part of a community development model.”
He said working to redevelop Wichita’s neighborhoods will ease any backlash to efforts to continue to build up the downtown.
Having more people arriving than leaving is critical. It feeds, and is fed by, a dynamic, creative economy.
Although Wichita’s population is growing – at less than 1 percent per year since 2010 – it is seeing more people leave than move in, particularly educated young and middle-aged adults.
Chung identified this leakage as one the most critical challenges that Wichita faces. Even though businesses are adding jobs, the number of potential workers is not growing, which slows business expansion.
In fact, Chung said in his July presentation, other cities have learned to recruit from Wichita and appreciate how good the local education system is here. Of particular concern, he said, is that college-educated professional women are paid less in Wichita than in other cities, encouraging them to leave.
But, Chung said, if Wichita tackles its talent challenge as vigorously as it has its entrepreneurism challenge, it should be fine. Such an effort is underway by a number of groups.
Once people realize that Wichita is a happening place, with opportunities to prosper, it will plug its leak.
“When we continue to show people that we are no longer the Air Capital but the Opportunity Capital, that message will resonate,” said Mayor Jeff Longwell. “It is about providing opportunities.”
Quality of life
Beside jobs, one of the keys to attracting and retaining those workers is a rich quality of life.
That can be anything that people value about their community: museums, youth sports, bike lanes, downtown apartments, upscale shopping, street fairs or short commutes.
Longwell is clear in his mind that quality of life is connected to talent retention, which is connected to economic vitality. Each reinforces the others.
It’s the powerful lesson from Oklahoma City’s experience in the 1990s. Despite a massive cash incentive, the city lost out on a giant airline maintenance facility because company executives just couldn’t bring themselves to live there.
City leaders have been able to push three large community development bond issues to upgrade their city, including the creation of Bricktown. Today, Oklahoma City is on Chung’s list of economically outperforming cities.
Longwell said he thinks that much of the hard set-up work is done. Large numbers of companies and organizations are pulling in the right direction. Many initiatives are underway.
New buildings are coming up: the Airbus building at WSU, Cargill, the new library, Mark Arts, and on and on.
Wichita already has most of the key elements established to brighten its future, he said. Now, it’s time to push hard and keep pushing.
“I think we are to the critical stage where we ought to be building upon what we’ve already done,” Longwell said.