Wichita must step up efforts to attract jobs, civic leaders say

The Wichita Eagle

Intrust Bank Arena hosted a pep rally Thursday, and all the cheerleaders wore business attire.

Top civic leaders hammered home the message to an appreciative audience that Wichita risks losing its economic competitiveness and must move ahead with several controversial economic development measures.

Featured at the annual Chairman’s Lunch were Mayor Carl Brewer, Sedgwick County Commission chairman Dave Unruh and Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce chairman Wayne Chambers.

Participating in a panel discussion, Brewer and Unruh were vague about their exact plans, but Unruh said later that the community needs a multimillion-dollar war chest for business incentives – something that could mean a public vote for a sales or other tax – and a publicly controlled industrial park. But Unruh stopped short of saying whether leaders would try a public vote for any measures this year.

Brewer said the Wichita City Council will look at the results of a recent community engagement survey to see how high a priority to place on economic development.

But all three repeated arguments Wichita leaders have made for years, that Wichita is “at a crossroads,” with one direction headed toward increasing economic growth and jobs and the other headed toward decline.

Exhibit No. 1 in their presentation was a Chamber of Commerce chart showing that, five years after the recession ended, Wichita had regained few, if any, jobs from the depths of the economic downturn – while other cities across the region have rebounded strongly.

“Given that chart, we need to do something radically different, and we need to do it fairly quickly,” Chambers said.

Wichita’s economy is tied so strongly to aircraft manufacturing that continued depression in the general aviation industry means that Wichita has grown only slightly since 2009, with virtually no job growth.

It’s not a matter of making the city more pro-business, Chambers said.

Chambers, who is president of High Touch, just went through the city/county economic development process himself and was awarded incentives to encourage the company to buy a building downtown and commit to staying in Wichita. The process worked well enough, he said.

The fate of Wichita if it can’t compete more successfully against other cities for projects – either homegrown or those looking to relocate – is serious over the long term.

“It means a shrinking tax base and that puts more pressure on government services, and that begins a downward spiral,” Unruh said.

Brewer said he has gotten a pretty clear message from citizens: “Jobs, jobs, jobs and grow our businesses, or we risk losing our quality of life.”