Trip inspires young Wichitans to help city grow

Four young Wichita professionals came back from a community revitalization conference in Tennessee this month raring to get to work.

Jamil Malone, Sommer Keplar, Jason Dilts and Heather Denker took part in the City Share Conference Feb. 18-20 at CreateHere in Chattanooga, Tenn., attended by 25 people from cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Charlottesville, Va., and Windsor, Ontario.

The trip's goal was to share ideas on how to retain and energize the city's young creative base. They returned determined to take a lead role in the city's efforts to revitalize downtown and grow.

"We've got to do a better job of passing the baton," said Dilts, of ROKICT. "Leaders aren't just cultivated. It's younger people engaging with the older generation, saying, 'OK, we want you to come along with us and take some ownership in these projects.' "

To do that, the group intends to blend its volunteers into a "positive force" for growing Wichita, pushing the city's longtime residents to join in.

"I think you start with respect," Dilts said. "You respect other people's views, even if you don't agree with them, and you lead by example to bring them along.

"If you have good ideas, positive energy and you work hard to put them out there, you create a strong force that's hard for the naysayers to stand in the way of."

The privately funded trip was the brainchild of Wichita City Council member Janet Miller.

"I was definitely looking for engagement from the younger generation," she said. "We need people in that next generation to get enthusiastic about growing Wichita and take off on their own using their own life experiences and interests to bring their own flavor to it."

The work starts, the group said, with harnessing the city's creativity, from the obvious artists and musicians to entrepreneurs and future public servants.

"I thought that the neatest thing CreateHere does is an eight-week business class... teaching young people how to start a business and write a business plan," Dilts said.

"We've got all this creative energy in Wichita and a generation gravitating toward more creative fields. How do you take that in a city like Wichita where manufacturing has historically been the economy and harness that into sustainable jobs?"

Attacking Wichita's inferiority complex is another goal.

"We need to feel better about our community. We need to fix our internal perception problem," said Denker, director of Young Professionals of Wichita.

"We need to find our energy and the sources of our energy and move forward," said Keplar, with Via Christi Health.

"At several points, we had these moments of, 'Wow, Wichita is really doing this amazingly well.' Now, it's about finding the people and the things we're doing well and pushing those forward."

Miller raised $5,000 for the trip from participants in October's Visioneering Wichita trip to Chattanooga.

Corporate sponsors for the trip included Spirit AeroSystems and Hutton Construction.

The group spent about half that total, and Miller said the rest will be used for a scholarship to include a young professional in next fall's Visioneering city-to-city trip.

"People like to stay in cities where they have buy-in, involvement and a stake in the future," Miller said.

"If other people tell them how to do things... it's not nearly as appealing as finding something you're enthusiastic about, taking the ball and running with it."