So the Brookings Institution thinks Wichita is no longer in the heartland, and has more in common demographically with Detroit and Youngstown, Ohio, than with Kansas City, Mo., or Oklahoma City.
That sounds like a “gross distortion of reality” to Mayor Carl Brewer, who told The Eagle editorial board, in a statement, that Wichita “is still poised to retain its title as the Air Capital of the World, contributing one-third of total tax revenues collected by the state of Kansas. And, unlike Detroit or Birmingham, Wichita is rapidly diversifying its economic base, launching new initiatives in health care and bioscience.”
At Wednesday’s Sedgwick County Commission meeting, Chairman Karl Peterjohn similarly called the think tank’s views “out of touch” and noted that the local unemployment rate is well below the national average. “I think there is some confusion, in Washington at least, perhaps maybe just at the Brookings Institute, in terms of how communities like Sedgwick County and Wichita operate,” Peterjohn said.
But if Wichita simply dismisses its unflattering label in the Brookings Institution’s new report, “The State of Metropolitan America,” it will miss an opportunity to reflect on where its economy is going and perhaps should go.
It also will overlook the report’s insights into the nature of the nation’s growth beyond the 300æmillion mark since 2000 -- such as that 83 percent of it was due to nonwhites and that urban populations are diversifying, aging and seeing increasingly uneven levels of income and education.
Giving data more weight than geography, the report lumps Wichita in with 17 other “Industrial Core” metropolitan areas viewed as “slower-growing, less diverse and less educated than national averages, and significantly older than the large metropolitan average.” That puts Wichita in the company of neighbor Tulsa, but also with such roughed-up cities as New Orleans, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y. Unenviably, Wichita also stands out as one of only 10 metropolitan areas that saw the share of households with middle incomes decline by 5æpercentage points or more over the past decade.
The Brookings report suggests that the trends favor cities that can accommodate more efficient growth, integrate and incorporate diverse populations, offer senior citizens affordability and vitality, promote higher educational attainment and reduce income inequality. It also advocates that cities and suburbs transcend their borders and seek regional strategies to deal with immigration, aging populations, poverty and more.
In its conclusions, the Brookings report validates much of what Wichita area leaders already have in place and under way. Consultants are helping Wichita focus its downtown redevelopment goals and partnering with the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to target the area’s next big industries, such as alternative energy along with aerospace and medical. Visioneering Wichita’s strategic alliances have worked much of the ground that Brookings defines, from early childhood to older adults, from racial diversity to health care, and from downtown to the Statehouse. Crucial seeds for local economic growth are coming from Sedgwick County’s National Center for Aviation Training, the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, and Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research.
So maybe the Brookings categorization was a false alarm based on outdated information. And no East Coast think tank is going to take Wichita out of the heartland.
But it isn’t the first time that Wichita, in light of its aviation layoffs, has been mentioned in the same breath as Detroit. And as 2010 census numbers roll in, Wichita should prepare itself to be further characterized as far from the leading edge of the nation’s demographic change. In any case, community leaders can’t afford to sit back and expect the future to find Wichita -- at least not any future worth having.