What's the matter with Wichita?
In some cases, not what you'd think, according to a consultant's recently completed study for Young Professionals of Wichita.
Wichita ranks about average with some elite company — Denver, Kansas City, Fort Worth and Salt Lake City, among others — in vibrancy, community engagement and after-hours entertainment, aspects of Wichita life that often draw snarky comments and eye-rolling from young adults.
The city does exhibit some real deep-seated, hard-to-fix shortcomings in attracting and retaining educated young adults, but some of its gaps are more a matter of relatively easy fixes and better marketing.
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Next Generation Consulting founder Rebecca Ryan will unveil recommendations based on the study at a YPW gathering on Monday.
Wichita business leaders have long maintained that drawing and keeping educated young adults is key to the area's long-term economic growth.
Wichita was a net exporter of 25- to 40-year-olds over the past decade. Nearly a quarter of survey respondents under age 40 said they are likely to leave in the coming few years; 6 percent said they are unsure of their plans.
Next Generation pegs the potential cost from losing those residents at $610 million in lost investment.
That's why the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce formed YPW in 2005 and local businesses bankrolled the study.
Now is the perfect time to unveil the study, said YPW director Heather Denker.
Wichita's recession has forced its leaders to think hard about what comes next. Downtown development and economic development groups soon will unveil long-term plans.
As long as big decisions about the future of the community are being made, she said, she wanted to have the data to back up their two cents.
"I wanted to make sure that the young voice was heard and stayed top-of-mind," she said.
The good, the bad and the misinformed
First, the good news: Wichita is less expensive to live, work and play in than the average of its peer cities. Those peers include the cities mentioned earlier, plus Omaha; Oklahoma City; Tulsa; Chattanooga, Tenn; Richmond, Va.; and Raleigh, N.C.
No shock there, as Wichitans of all ages and backgrounds recognize and value the inexpensive living, said study author Molly Foley, lead consultant with Next Generation.
The affordability factor is most apparent to transplants, those who were raised elsewhere, and returning natives she said.
Now, the bad news: The second-most valued factor is a broad and diverse range of professional job opportunities.
Many in the survey see Wichita as a one-trick pony, or at least a town where you have limited options if you don't want to work for a manufacturer.
It has cost Wichita plenty, Foley said. Landing a job in another city is far and away the biggest reason why people leave Wichita, according to the survey.
There is some truth to these perceptions, Foley said, based on an analysis of the economy. Slow-growing Wichita is about twice as heavy on manufacturing as the nation. Still, less than a quarter of all Wichita jobs are considered to be in the manufacturing sector.
That one may be tough to tackle, Foley concedes. Wichita has been talking about diversification for decades with relatively little to show for it.
"It has to be an ongoing, long-term strategy around job growth," Foley said. "How can you further innovation and make sure that creativity and entrepreneurism is supported in the community?"
Another deep-seated issue is the desire of most survey respondents for a community that is diverse, socially engaged and safe. Fewer than half felt that it is.
The best news might be that some of the factors long viewed as Wichita drawbacks could be fixed relatively easily.
Those include the relative ease of getting around the community. Wichita's a great city for driving, but it's not good for biking, walking or mass transit.
"Alternative modes of transport just aren't there," Foley said.
But while Wichita lags its peer cities badly on alternative modes of transportation, people in Wichita didn't register a large amount of dissatisfaction because of it. They appear to be happy with their cars, she said.
Another issue, community vibrancy, revolves around using parks, finding places to exercise and the general health of the local environment.
Survey respondents gave Wichita a terrible grade on that, although Wichita scored about average with its peer cities.
Much of the problem, Foley said, is Wichita's park system. The system seems adequate in size, but disconnected and inconveniently located.
Fixing that simply might be a matter of better organizing and linking the parks and recreation areas and marketing them better.
"Wichita scores pretty well or average against peer communities for green space and parks," Foley said. "You just have to make the connections better and communicate what you have better."
And in the nightlife and culture portion — clubs, restaurants, theaters, museums and festivals — Wichita also ranks about average compared to its peers.
That is something the survey respondents generally agree is adequate, she said.
Overall, the survey reveals opportunities as well as difficult long-term challenges, Foley said.
The recommendations will be concrete and divided into immediate, short-term and long-term time frames, she said. The important thing, she said, is to make progress on those items than can be tackled, even in a tough economy.
"There are ways to move the needle," she said, "to keep Wichita on a continued growth path that aren't going to take a huge investment."