Eagle editorial: Wichita needs more big economic scores

07/06/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

McConnell Air Force Base’s status as the future home of 36 new KC-46A tankers, celebrated at last week’s groundbreaking for $197 million in new construction, will boost Wichita’s economy and ego. But the community needs more big scores, and the competitive incentives it takes these days to recruit businesses and jobs. Can it get them?

It’s all well and good to see the Dow Jones industrial average top 17,000 for the first time, as it did Thursday, and the U.S. unemployment rate decline in June to a six-year low of 6.1 percent amid a surge of hiring.

But the jobless rate in the Wichita area rose in May, to 5.4 percent from April’s 5.2 percent, and it continues to exceed many rates around the state (including Topeka’s 4.9 percent) and region (such as Omaha’s 3.8 percent, Oklahoma City’s 4.4 percent and Tulsa’s 4.8 percent).

The local economy has its impressive hot spots, most notably Koch Industries’ gangbusters expansion via construction and acquisition.

Downtown’s reinvention continues to be sure, steady and admirably driven by private investment.

And Wichita State University is in growth mode, with a new dorm opening and bold goals for an innovation campus that will turn high-tech ideas into commerce.

With Boeing’s departure nearly complete, one question is what it will take to get the city’s remaining signature aerospace companies booming again. Fears have been fueled by rumors about whether Spirit AeroSystems might sell its parts fabrication work out from under Wichita, and recent layoffs at Bombardier Learjet were unsettling.

But Wichita remains enviably well-positioned for an invitable rebound in sales across the spectrum of commercial aerospace and general aviation.

As aviation consultant Rolland Vincent recently told The Eagle’s Molly McMillin, “the good news is that Textron Aviation, which includes Cessna and Beechcraft, has over half of the world’s turbine fleet. That doesn’t count the Learjet fleet out there. That’s an amazing supply of parts and customers. There’s so much activity there.”

Just as important are the strong, forward-looking local assets: WSU’s National Institute for Aviation Research and the National Center for Aviation Training.

Meanwhile, the decision of whether to put a 1-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot awaits a Wichita City Council vote next month. As discussed so far, the proceeds would enable the city to ensure a future water source, sustain and improve the bus system, and step up street maintenance as well as fund an economic development war chest of as much as $90 million.

But the sales tax will take quite a sales job. When SurveyUSA did a poll in late April for the Kansas Policy Institute think tank, 63 percent of respondents opposed raising sales tax to provide incentives to businesses. Though voters won’t be able to pick and choose among the priorities, a strong aversion to the jobs fund might be decisive.

Leaders at the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce have a potent argument that the community can’t compete without a better array of incentives to offer companies looking to move or expand.

With or without the voters’ endorsement of a higher sales tax, Wichita needs to get from here to a future with more groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings and jobs.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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