As Sedgwick County reels from layoffs in recent weeks, candidates for county commission are focusing attention on job creation and retention while most admit there's only so much government can do.
The county can offer subsidies, incentives and forgivable loans, such as the $1.6 million package it gave Spirit AeroSystems two years ago to keep it in the area. It can invest in training facilities such as the roughly $50 million National Center for Aviation Training. It can build streets and extend sewer lines. It can cut property taxes.
Indirectly, commissioners can work to make Sedgwick County a better place to live, which helps attract businesses.
As 1,050 job cuts were announced at Cessna Aircraft and Hawker Beechcraft in the past two weeks — and Hawker contemplated moving elsewhere — the county has $900,000 in its budget next year to provide incentives to attract and keep jobs to the area.
Gwen Welshimer, the Democrat who represents the southern part of the county on the commission, will present a plan Wednesday that calls for recruiting companies that specialize in personal aircraft — small planes that people can fold up and put in their garage
— saying that "when one door closes, another door opens, and I suggest we need to walk through our open door into the future of flight."
She is proposing that the Greater Wichita Economic Development Council spend half of its budget doing so. Its budget this year is $1.2 million. The county, like the city, contributes to the GWEDC.
"It will be my plan for what the county can do to try to create an atmosphere for jobs within Sedgwick County. It's not an easy question to answer, and it's not an easy solution to come up with," she said of the plan she will discuss this week.
Her Republican challenger, Wichita City Council member Jim Skelton, doesn't have a specific plan. Neither do most of the other candidates.
"I think the county has a big responsibility in providing a business-friendly tax environment," Skelton said.
He also advocates regional partnerships and "creating an environment where people want to live."
"It's not limited to incentives," he said of economic development. "It's not a thing we can go out and wave a magic wand at and fix."
District 1 Democratic candidate Betty Arnold, currently a Wichita school board member, said she wants to bring passenger rail back to downtown. District 1 includes the eastern part of Sedgwick County.
"I'm looking at the old train station and all of this interest in downtown development," she said. "Think of the activity we could have going on there."
Passenger rail, she said, would bring tourists and consumers to town, connect communities and help businesses by providing them an alternative method of transportation.
"That's a perfect example in my mind of economic development," she said.
Like Welshimer, Arnold also is eager to find a plan for the Kansas Coliseum complex that creates jobs.
"It seems like we get one project and we're hot on that project and fail to multitask. Downtown is on the radar, but what are we going to do out here?" she asked of the Coliseum.
Arnold said offering companies an educated and skilled work force is a must.
"I do recognize in terms of economic development, government really is pretty limited," Arnold said.
But she wants to see commissioners "connect the dots," instead of making decisions in a vacuum, which she thinks is happening now.
"Indecision carries a big price tag," she said. "We can't afford to be passive."
Commissioner Dave Unruh, the Republican hoping to keep his District 1 seat, said he's trying to explain to voters "how the county's involved in making our economy strong. One of the biggest things we're doing is supporting the National Center for Aviation Training. The aviation industry is going to come back. It's probably going to be different than what it was in the past."
Unruh said the county must create "an environment or be a partner in creating an environment that attracts talented people and a labor force. We have to have a community where people want to live, have a trained work force and provide, when appropriate, with judicious oversight, incentives where we can compete in the marketplace."
Candidates also recognize that other communities and states can offer more money in incentives because they have more money to spend.
"When you're competing to bring some company in here that's going to hire a lot of people, you're often competing with another community that can offer a lot of resources," Unruh said. "We can compete on the basis of an attractive community, skilled work force. Where we aren't able to is how much incentives that we're able to offer. Oftentimes our resources don't match up with some of these more populous states."
Political newcomer Richard Ranzau, a Republican seeking the District 4 seat in the northern part of the county being vacated by Kelly Parks, said the stressed economy was "brought on by events at the federal level. I think the state raising taxes was not a good idea." He said the county needs to be realistic about economic problems, because it can't solve a problem it didn't create.
The county can help, he said, by not raising taxes and by not creating more regulatory hoops for businesses to jump through. He'd like to see the county push to repeal the state sales tax and corporate income tax and "offset both of those with decreases in government spending at the state level."
"I don't think it's the government's job to create jobs. It's to allow the free market to create jobs."
Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Democratic state senator running for the District 4 seat, said the county can help with tax abatements, land and putting small businesses to work through bids and contracts.
"With all the layoffs going on, we've got to put people back to work," she said. "We have been a city that has really employed people through the aircraft industry and through aviation. And we still have to do that. I think we'll do well here again as our economy prospers. But we've got to start looking at some other manufacturing job opportunities."
As she's met with people from Valley Center and Park City, "they're really wanting some development in that area. I know people hate tax incentives and all that, but we might have to do that a little bit to get back on track."