September 2, 2012

Eagle editorial: Labor outlook improving

Labor Day weekend finds the Wichita area still sore from the bruising recession, but also gaining on its dreams of a diversified economy rich in global companies and high-paying jobs.

Labor Day weekend finds the Wichita area still sore from the bruising recession, but also gaining on its dreams of a diversified economy rich in global companies and high-paying jobs.

August brought the great news that high-tech data storage company Net-App plans to add 400 jobs over the next five years to the 450 already in Wichita, and also invest $85 million in equipment and renovation at its facility at 3718 N. Rock Road.

“That’s a vote of confidence in the community,” Mayor Carl Brewer said of NetApp’s news.

In turn, the plan likely will necessitate votes of confidence in the company by the City Council and Sedgwick County Commission to authorize the kind of incentives that draw fire from free-market purists.

But Wichita has learned from recent victories and defeats that economic development in the second decade of the 21st century is a contact sport, and that it can take tax breaks, forgivable loans and other enticing tools to land companies and jobs and then hold onto them. In NetApp’s case, the state reportedly is involved, too, bearing out the pragmatic view that conservative Gov. Sam Brownback stated last year that “we have to fund the incentives to keep competitive in the game.”

August also saw the first Air Capital Supplier Summit, forging new relationships between Europe’s Airbus and area aviation businesses – and making it a bit easier to imagine a post-Boeing Wichita.

During the same month we learned that the state’s horizontal oil drilling boom had reached southwest Sedgwick County, where Shell Oil Co. plans to drill. Companies including Shell, SandRidge Energy, Tug Hill Energy and Chesapeake Energy have drilled or filed an intent to drill nearly 400 horizontal wells in Kansas over the past 18 months – in a boom mostly along the Oklahoma state line that promises to spread and, Kansans can hope, offset the revenue impact of the state’s new income-tax cuts.

Time spent in downtown Wichita lately confirms that the city’s core is going places, with the 117-room Ambassador Hotel at Douglas and Broadway scheduled to open before the year is out and construction under way on the same block’s Kansas Leadership Center, former Henry’s building and new city parking garage. Such new life on Douglas will help draw locals downtown as well as new businesses to Wichita, as will the new YMCA nearing completion at Central and Market and the new apartments in the core planned by WaterWalk developer Jack DeBoer and others.

Recent news on the labor front has been encouraging amid adverse conditions, with the Wichita school district enabling teachers and other employees to start the semester with their first raise in four years and the Machinists union members at Hawker Beechcraft voting overwhelmingly to accept the company’s proposed changes to their pension plan.

Wichita remains hopeful that Hawker Beechcraft’s bankruptcy will have a clean landing via the proposed sale to Superior Aviation Beijing Co. Though there are many uncertainties ahead, the bankruptcy is proceeding in a way that signals commitment to sustaining the company’s 80-year legacy of building aircraft in Wichita. As a 17-year employee observed in The Eagle recently, “they could have just locked the doors.”

The summer also has seen Spirit AeroSystems continue its amazing recovery after taking a direct hit from the EF-3 tornado in April, while expansion plans proceed at Bombardier Learjet and Cessna Aircraft Corp.

Overall, like the political parties whose conventions frame the Labor Day holiday this year, Wichita and Kansas are focused on jobs, jobs, jobs. And they can’t afford to be otherwise.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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