Six years after the Great Recession grounded general aviation and two years after Boeing announced its pullout, Wichita’s economy isn’t exactly healing itself. City, county and economic development leaders are right to sound the alarm about the need for a bigger war chest for business recruitment, though it’s too soon to say the sales tax should rise to fund it.
There has been some remarkable progress in recent years, too, including Koch Industries’ expanding employment and footprint, McConnell Air Force Base’s win of the KC-46A refueling tankers, and downtown’s ongoing reinvention. And Wichita State University is aggressively seeking to put itself on the leading edge of business innovation and entrepreneurship, with some great help from the state.
But Wichita isn’t seeing enough wins to offset the devastating job losses at its aircraft-manufacturing plants. The estimated elimination of more than one-third of the local aerospace jobs since 2008 doesn’t account for what might be ahead as Beechcraft and Cessna complete their merger under the Textron Aviation flag. The 575 layoffs announced in April may not be the end of it.
Leaders can point to Wichita’s skilled labor force as its strength, but they also know that many of those workers are nearing retirement or eyeing opportunities in other states and cities with stronger recoveries. And diversifying the economy beyond aviation needs to get off the to-do list, where it’s been for decades.
All of this will be on the minds of the Wichita City Council members as they hear a report from the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and other business leaders in a Tuesday workshop, and consider in coming weeks whether to ask voters to raise the sales tax to fund an array of needs.
The business leaders’ identified priority of a $90 million jobs fund is compelling, especially considering GWEDC has had $1.6 million to work with – and Chattanooga and Tennessee recently paid $288,700 in incentives per job for a new Volkswagen plant. Wichita even has trouble competing with Emporia and Topeka on incentives.
As Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce chairman Wayne Chambers of High Touch Technologies so vividly put it in a meeting with The Eagle editorial board last week, “Wichita goes to a gunfight with a knife” when it comes to the fierce and well-funded competition to attract new businesses. As GWEDC steering council member Steve Sharp of Spirit AeroSystems noted, Wichita needs good roads, good schools and good cultural offerings but it also needs economic development incentives.
The money wouldn’t all be offered as cash to companies interested in Wichita. It also could upgrade the local assets needed for such recruitment, including by preparing a “megasite” with the land and transportation access to meet a big employer’s immediate needs.
Local leaders know that “incentives” is a dirty word in Wichita, so much so that Americans for Prosperity successfully challenged one small tax giveaway at the ballot box two years ago. A community survey and ACT ICT engagement meetings ranked encouraging economic development and job creation as a top need for the city, and participants indicated a willingness to consider a sales-tax increase to pay for community priorities. But a SurveyUSA poll sponsored by the Kansas Policy Institute found that 63 percent of citizens oppose a sales-tax increase to provide incentives to businesses.
It remains to seen whether the Wichita Chamber membership would endorse a sales-tax hike – or even if the City Council would.
But the scope of Wichita’s jobs problem calls for urgency and action.