Special Reports

March 1, 2014

Taking Wichita to the next level

The Wichita State University basketball team had a breakout performance in 2013 with its march to the Final Four, drawing national attention. The city that supports the Shockers could be poised for similar success in 2014.

The Wichita State University basketball team had a breakout performance in 2013 with its march to the Final Four, drawing national attention. The city that supports the Shockers could be poised for similar success in 2014.

But it will have to step up its game and “Play Angry” to get there, city leaders say.

“There is the opportunity to bring more of a national awareness of what’s happening in Wichita,” said Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp. “And certainly what’s happening with WSU helps us. People look at us and ask, ‘Who is Wichita and what is happening there?’”

Wichita has been setting the table in recent years for just such a push. A new airport terminal, growth in the northwest and northeast parts of the city, investment in downtown development and renovation, and increased community involvement in planning suggest a city poised to reach the next level.

The city did draw some national attention in 2013.

It was invited by Portland State University of Oregon to participate in a year-long program that helps midsize cities accelerate sustainable development.

And it was featured twice in Better Cities & Towns magazine of Ithaca, N.Y. A spring edition cited the Goody Clancy plan for downtown and how it has “spurred redevelopment at a torrid pace.” An article in August about the growing trend of young people moving to downtown and urban neighborhoods mentioned a market study done by Zimmerman-Volk Associates for “the reviving downtown of Wichita, Kansas” that showed younger singles and couples comprise 71 percent of the market for new dwelling units downtown.

Suzy Finn, who took over in May as executive director of Young Professionals of Wichita, said membership in the organization grew to 2,200 in 2013, an increase of 15 percent that reversed a downward trend. She expects more growth in 2014. More than 100 new members joined in January.

Last year, the organization created a Launch Wichita website to help college students find internships in Wichita and get information about living here. Finn said young people she talks to who live elsewhere don’t have Wichita on their radar until they get here for a job. Then they love it.

“It’s something we’re really focusing on, how to grow awareness of internships so more and more students see this as a destination for internships,” she said.

Creating jobs

Improving the local job market in 2014 is seen as a must for a city that lags the nation and peer cities in recovering jobs lost to the recession, leaders say.

“Jobs create the wealth in the community, and we are at the bottom,” said Suzie Ahlstrand, executive vice president for community development at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce. “It takes an awful lot of energy to pull it back up. We’ve got to get on it.”

If the city does not grow jobs, it could start to shrink, she said.

“I think we’re at that tipping point,” Ahlstrand said.

Only modest improvement in the jobs situation is forecast for 2014.

Industry analysts project growth in the business jet market will resume this year after bottoming out in 2013.

But Jeremy Hill, director of Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research Center, forecasts that total non-farm employment will increase by 2,683 jobs in 2014, a 0.9 percent growth rate.

Although that is almost double the growth rate in 2013, those numbers have been revised downward from Hill’s projections in October, when he forecast a 1.2 percent increase.

“We are growing faster than 2013, but not nearly as fast as Kansas or the U.S.,” Hill said. “The U.S. is growing to 1.8 percent, so we’re half of that.”

‘Are you satisfied?’

Wichita must raise its competitive level in 2014 to attract businesses and jobs in 2014, leaders say. Tim Chase, president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, prefers “Are you satisfied?” to the Shockers’ “Play Angry” as a slogan for the city this year.

“Nobody I know of is satisfied,” Chase said. “We always feel we can improve, and must improve, to increase the size of our economy.”

The job of the GWEDC is to strengthen the economy by increasing the number of businesses that export their products, creating jobs and bringing new dollars into the community. Chase regards that as a team sport, where the players include elected officials, business leaders, education providers and the workforce.

And that team has to raise its level of competitiveness in 2014. The chamber’s Leadership Council, a group of more than 100 business, non-profit and public-sector CEOs that was formed a year ago to find ways to grow the economy, came up with a competitive index that shows Wichita at 2.5 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 5 is the highest level of competitiveness. The council’s goal is to see that level rise to 4.5.

“We’ve got a group of business and community leaders who are not satisfied with where we are in terms of being competitive and growing jobs,” Chase said. “One of the strongest aspects of 2014, 2015 and 2016 is the realization and acceptance that we shouldn’t be satisfied. We’ve done well in the past. We can do better.”

Among other goals, Wichita needs to get its story out, he said.

“We have a fabulous story here already,” Chase said, “but we do need to tell more people about what we have, and we need to tell it more loudly.”

Visitors to the city

Susie Santo, president and CEO of Go Wichita, said the city is poised for a breakout year in tourism.

“Absolutely,” she said. “We did a lot of ground work in 2013 that positions us to know more about our visitors, which will help us tell the Wichita story.”

A visitor profile study Go Wichita conducted in 2013 showed that the Wichita Metropolitan Statistical Area – Sedgwick, Harvey, Butler and Sumner counties – draws 6 million visitors annually for day and overnight trips. Data from the survey is still being analyzed. “The good news is, when they get here, they’re very satisfied. We should all be happy about that,” Santo said.

An initiative on tap for 2014 is an effort to come up with a brand that identifies Wichita more clearly so it can tell its story better, she said.

Fluhr, of the WDDC, said the list of downtown projects to be completed or initiated in Wichita in 2014 will increase national awareness of the city. Completion is due on the Corner 365 apartments at First Sreet and Waco, the Value Place Apartments and The Lux, as well improvements at the Hyatt Regency and Courtyard Marriott hotels, and transit and garage improvement

New starts in 2014 will include the second phase of 154-unit River Vista, the 54-unit Main & Market Apartments, and a mixed-use development at Exchange and Bitting, plus $100 million in various phases of due diligence and design development.

“There’s a lot of different ways in which Wichita is being talked about now,” Fluhr said. “So what we’ve got to do as a community ... is make sure we have a level of collaboration to maximize opportunities.”

Play like the Shockers, in other words.

Wichita State’s basketball success, which has continued into this year with a long winning streak and a high national profile in the polls and on television, can help us feel good about ourselves, help push us over the top of a wave of energy that can boost the city, Ahlstrand said.

“I think now is the time to come together and create this crescendo,” she said. “It’s a unique time for us, and the Wichita State basketball team is going to help us. It’s time to be serious about it, time to be aggressive about it.”

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