City, Wichita Festivals in talks over aviation event

Airplanes on display at the Wichita Flight Festival at Jabara Airport in 2011.
Airplanes on display at the Wichita Flight Festival at Jabara Airport in 2011. File photo

If Wichita has any type of flight festival in 2014, it could be put on by Wichita Festivals Inc., the same group responsible for running the Wichita River Festival, say representatives from both the city and the festival.

Though nothing has been agreed upon, festival leaders are having “conversations” with city officials about the possibility of the festival putting on some type of aviation-focused event later this year, said both John D’Angelo, manager of the city of Wichita’s Arts and Cultural Services Division, and Mary Beth Jarvis, the president and CEO of Wichita Festivals.

If the festival doesn’t put on the show this year, it’s likely no one will.

Budget cuts at McConnell Air Force Base forced its wing commander to cancel the base’s open house, an event held every other year that always includes an air show, said Stefan Bocchino, a McConnell spokesman. The base last hosted its Wings Over McConnell Open House and Air Show in September 2012, featuring a performance by the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

“It doesn’t preclude us from holding one in the future,” Bocchino said. “It’s open for the future to do it again, but it will always be a question of budget.”

McConnell and the city of Wichita entered into an agreement several years ago that they would alternate years putting on aviation festivals, and 2014 was to be McConnell’s year. The city hosted its every-other-year Wichita Flight Festival, an event featuring the “Tora Tora Tora” airshow performers, in September at Jabara Airport. The city’s next turn would come in 2015.

But D’Angelo, whose staff organizes the Wichita Flight Festival, said he’s not sure that the city wants to stay in the aviation festival business. Although it’s ultimately the City Council’s decision, D’Angelo said, his staff is small, and organizing the festival is a big undertaking.

“There’s some discussion about whether we continue or whether there’s going to be some change,” he said. “It’s difficult for us with a small staff. We do a lot of different things, and to take on an event of that size means we redirect staff, plus doing the fundraising that’s required to make it happen is another challenge for us.”

Enter Wichita Festivals.

In 2005, Wichita Festivals took over organizing the flight festival from the city and did so until 2009, when then-president Janet Wright decided not to continue and turned the responsibilities back over to the city.

Jarvis, who took over as head of Wichita Festivals in November 2012, once was chief of public affairs at McConnell and has experience coordinating air shows.

Jarvis said she has had several discussions with city officials about the possibility of the festival putting on some type of aviation event this year and continuing flight festival management into the future. Several more conversations are planned over the next couple of weeks, she said.

“Clearly, we want to be in the business of organizing events that the community values and that the city values and that people think are a great part of our heritage,” she said. “Certainly, this seems like it falls into that category.”

The idea for a fall flight festival originated in 2000 when a tourism consultant recommended that the city help sponsor a “Woodstock of aviation” as a way to draw in visitors.

Pete Meitzner, vice mayor of Wichita, says he’s not sure who should run the flight festival during McConnell’s off years. But he doesn’t want to see it fold.

However, he was noncommittal about the city continuing its management.

“We have to remember that we’re at the cultural center of a million people,” he said. “I’d like to see it keep going if it’s responsible. It’s a big part of our identity as an aviation community.”

Contributing: Bill Wilson of The Eagle

Related stories from Wichita Eagle