Economic development leaders say they appreciate Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer thinking "outside the box" but aren't ready to change their strategies.
Unveiling her idea this week to jump start the area's economy by drawing to Wichita the makers of high-tech aircraft — think "The Jetsons" and small planes you land, fold up and put in your garage — Welshimer called for innovation.
She shared information Wednesday during the County Commission's weekly meeting about several types of personal aircraft, including the so-called flying cars being made by a company called Terrafugia outside Boston that says it will deliver its first order next year.
Drawing from a program she watched on the Discovery Channel and information she researched on the Internet, Welshimer said that "if you can operate a cell phone," you can pilot one of the planes she advocates being built in the Air Capital of the World.
With sizable layoffs at Cessna Aircraft and Hawker Beechcraft in recent weeks, Welshimer, a Democrat running for re-election, said the area's strategies to create and retain jobs aren't working.
She said there's been a "poor success rate" and instead of seeing contracts "bloom once again, it's our competitors' budgets that are blooming. We're making decisions in the executive suite that seem to be disconnected from the market."
Vicki Pratt Gerbino, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, said that group has looked at several of the companies and products Welshimer highlighted in her presentation.
"There's a story behind every one of them, just like there's a story behind why Cessna is here and why Hawker is here. There's a reason for them being where they are and at the juncture they're at," Gerbino said.
"Now whether everyone and their brother is going to ultimately have a personal flying vehicle parked in their garage remains to be seen. That's the mantra behind the movement you are seeing, why you are seeing all these personal aircraft coming out. That's what Skycatcher basically is. There is a belief that 'The Jetsons' will become a reality at some point."
She said that belief has resulted in some companies putting time, money and resources to bring such aircraft to market.
Cessna's Skycatcher is a light sport aircraft.
But, she added, "while it always looks very sexy and attractive upfront — whether it's a new Siemens plant or a Skycatcher that you keep in the garage — take a good long look at what it is and what it has taken to get it to where it is. And then decide as a community."
The community has finite resources, she said. The coalition's budget this year is $1.2 million.
The coalition is the region's largest economic development organization and gets most of its financial support from the city of Wichita and the county.
Existing strategic plan
The coalition, Gerbino said, has a strategic plan on how it spends its money and what industries it targets.
"If you want to break that up and use it differently, then it's a discussion that has to happen amongst a lot of people. It isn't any one person that says, 'This is what we'll do now,' " she said.
Gerbino said the coalition reports to a steering council.
"It's not just Vicki and her friends. There are a lot of people involved here," she said. "If there's going to be a change in the direction and the work of this organization, it would have to be brought to the coalition and have the coalition make some decision on how they'd like to see things move. The county is part of that coalition, but they aren't all of it."
Welshimer called her presentation a "concept" and told her colleagues on the bench that "that's all it is is a concept. It's a concept for the future. It's a concept for Sedgwick County to be an incubator for future flight innovation. I present this concept as food for thought to assure ourselves that the future can be bright if we make it so."
Commissioner Kelly Parks was supportive of Welshmen's presentation and noted that new subdivisions are thinking about putting in runways behind houses.
Parks called Welshimer "ahead of her time."
Commissioner Karl Peterjohn said the county needs to create a positive environment for entrepreneurs to realize their dreams. But he said it's not government's skill set to pick "losers and winners."
On Thursday, commissioner Dave Unruh called Welshmen's plan interesting and said "if there was a way for her to cause those folks to be attracted to our community and build their products here, I'd certainly be in favor of that. But I do not think that it's appropriate for Sedgwick County to get financially involved in entrepreneurial efforts that are startup ventures."
Wichita City Council member Jim Skelton, a Republican who is running against Welshimer for the District 5 seat in the southern part of the county, said Thursday his only response was that "I'm a pilot, and I think there's a little more knowledge involved than the use of a cell phone. There's a real skill involved in landing an airplane."
Can incubators work?
Tim Pett, director of Wichita State University's Center for Entrepreneurship, said incubators can work.
"The questions people ask are, 'Is there enough groundswell to do that? And is there enough demand in the aerospace industry? Are there enough engineering types, these processing improvement kind of folks around that want to do this?' I think there probably is."
James Wiebe of BeLite Aircraft, a Wichita company that is making ultralight aircraft, spoke at Wednesday's meeting and in a later interview said the community needs to figure out how to support "good ideas within this industry."
"There's a tremendous amount of aviation development occurring in other areas of the United States," Wiebe said. "Big ideas with pretty big funding. And if you go down the road five or 10 years, there's going to be a lot of sales dollars and marketing volume going to be occurring for aviation, and it's not going to be in Wichita. And the sad thing is we have all the expertise right here in town. We should be way ahead of those people."