It’s too early to endorse the vague idea of Chinese investors helping Wichita pay for things such as a Century II renovation, a new Central Library, and water and sewer upgrades. But it’s also too late for xenophobic insistence on Wichita keeping its distance from China, which is a prime customer in the global economy that Wichita businesses serve.
Returning from the recent U.S.-China Eco-Cities Mayoral Exchange in Beijing, Mayor Carl Brewer passed along the stated Chinese interest in the possibility of investing in city projects. That was in addition to the less surprising prospect of Chinese investment in area commercial real estate and aviation companies – which is more what Wichita had in mind when it and Kansas Global Trade Services opened an aviation office in Beijing in October.
As the Economist magazine noted in an article this month headlined “Choose me! No, me!” on how U.S. mayors including Brewer “are streaming into China to tell potential investors how welcome they would be,” the efforts are paying off in new factories and other deals. “According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Chinese direct investment into America rose by an average 71 percent a year between 2008 and 2012,” the Economist reported, mentioning Wichita in the same breath as San Francisco and Chicago for its ambitious economic development efforts in China.
Last month China Daily quoted Brewer this way: “Wichita longs for a partner with youthful energy to share its wisdom with. China is what the Air Capital is looking for.”
Talking to The Eagle’s Bill Wilson last week, Brewer took care not to endorse the idea of Chinese dollars buying city assets or underwriting items on the city’s infrastructure to-do list.
More information could come when two groups of potential Chinese investors visit Wichita sometime in 2014, and when Wichita business representatives follow up with a reciprocal trip.
On the plus side, Chinese investment could provide the city with the capital to address needs such as a spacious, full-service convention center and widespread improvement of the water and sewer systems. That has appeal, especially if it could enable city officials to avoid asking voters next year for a sales-tax increase to pay for those projects as well as the long-delayed downtown library, a bus system upgrade, a new water source and perhaps more.
On the negative side, any privatization of public services or assets can lead to loss of control over them. That seems a particular concern if the investment were to involve the local water utility, say, where public access, safety and security are crucial.
Wichita ultimately may decide against partnering with the Chinese on public projects, viewing it as too risky. But Wichita businesses already need the wealth of customers that China represents.
And as the city continues to recover from the worst recession in a century, it’s best to keep minds and options open.