Speaking on Kansas Day, the mayor of the biggest city in Kansas exhibited more caution than big thinking. But Carl Brewer’s latest State of the City message was a good speech delivered with gusto and resolve to a city that is at a crossroads, as Brewer said, and impatient to see its economy get moving again.
Brewer’s natural enthusiasm for his favorite subject – Wichita – was tempered by the context of four years of flat property-tax revenues, shrinking state and federal funding, and the costly prospect of paying for future infrastructure needs. Like all local governments, Wichita must tailor its spending and ambitions to the lean, uncertain times.
Brewer could point to measurable progress, though, including the St. Francis corridor and other Project Downtown successes such as “Block One” and the new Robert D. Love Downtown YMCA; the beginning of construction on a new airport terminal; the expanded air service that will arrive in June with Southwest Airlines; the merger of code services with Sedgwick County; and the 13 percent increase in revenue at the city’s golf courses.
Noting the impressive $250 million in private investment in the city’s core since 2009, Brewer said that as development continues downtown, “we are closer to reaching our goals of increased pride, an increased tax base, and bringing more businesses and jobs to the city of Wichita.”
Brewer can claim a good chunk of that new pride. Now two years into his second and final term, he made downtown redevelopment his signature priority when the economy was at its worst, bringing a lot of doubters along for what has been a great ride so far.
Also close to the mayor’s heart are youths, especially those who lack homes or hope. He was able to highlight the opening of the Wichita Children’s Home drop-in center. Now citizens should answer Brewer’s call to help fund a five-bed emergency shelter pilot program for these young people.
Especially after last year’s bitter dispute between the local firefighters union and the Wichita Fire Department leadership, Brewer was right to give special attention to public safety, mentioning efforts to better include rank-and-file members in policymaking.
The mayor also identified a big problem for Wichita’s aspirations to rebuild its economy and chart its post-Boeing future – the lack of a dedicated funding stream for economic development. If Wichita is serious about finding new jobs, he said, “we must change this scenario as soon as possible. Where will the incentive dollars come from?”
Good question – one that deserves an answer before the next State of the City address rolls around.
Meanwhile, those citizens who receive a community survey in the mail in the next few days should take the time to complete and return it, as the rest of us get ready to participate in the Wichita-Sedgwick County comprehensive planning process in other ways. Whether the issue is water, streets, parks, buses, bike paths, arts and culture, Century II or a new Central Library, the needs over the coming years and decades will be many and the public investment large.
As the mayor said: “Only by hearing from you can we work together to solve the challenges facing our community.”