Members of GWEDC question group's hybrid mission

There's less "Greater" in the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition these days.

The eight counties surrounding Sedgwick County last year stopped contributing money to the group's marketing efforts of the region.

The reason, say county representatives and observers, is a general unhappiness with the former system of assessing contributions, suspicion and tight recession-era budgets.

But such divisions may become a thing of the past by the end of the year, said one person who is trying to bring the parties back to the table.

Until 2009, counties outside of Sedgwick County paid $2,500 a year to help defray costs associated with the marketing effort. It's a relatively small amount, but some counties thought it was too much for what they got.

Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita each contribute about $300,000.

GWEDC scrapped the assessment and put together a menu of trade shows GWEDC was attending and the cost to be included, said Vicki Pratt Gerbino, the group's president.

With a few exceptions, Gerbino said, no one from the surrounding counties accompanied GWEDC officials to any of the shows.

The crux of the problem is the coalition's unusual hybrid mission that makes it both cooperate and compete with the smaller counties.

The coalition is the region's largest economic development organization, with a budget of $1.3 million. Just like any other county economic development group, it prospects for leads, wines and dines company executives, and coordinates local and state incentives.

But it also has a broader role: marketing all of the counties and communities in the region.

When coalition staff travels to a wind energy trade show in Chicago or an aircraft trade show in Orlando, its booth shows maps of the nine-county region. The coalition's website includes demographic data and building sites from the nine counties.

One of the tenets of economic development is that selling a region is better than selling just a city or county.

For the GWEDC, it means a better product, with more people, more building sites and more suppliers.

The nine-county area has 726,000 people, about 50 percent more than Sedgwick County alone.

It also allows GWEDC to get some mileage out of other counties' big wins, such as the Siemens Wind Power plant in Reno County and the Tindall wind turbine support plant coming to Harvey County.

For the smaller counties, it provides a presence in places they could never afford to be.

"We don't want to be a blank spot on the map for these companies," said Jane Wallace, executive director of Kingman County Economic Development Council.

Wallace said she wants to re-establish the regional partnership with GWEDC. Even though no projects have come to her through the coalition, it provided her with expertise in negotiating when she did land a plant.

There is also the issue of trust. GWEDC competes head-on with the other counties when it comes to recruiting plants, and may even deal with a company from one of those counties.

Some of these counties wonder whether GWEDC can really cooperate on the marketing side, and compete with them on the recruiting side.

They wonder: If a prospect walks up to a booth at a trade show, will the GWEDC staff really allow them to see building sites in another county?

"Some of the outlying areas feel they are playing with uneven circumstances, with Wichita being the 800-pound gorilla," said Dave Unruh, a Sedgwick County commissioner and member of the Regional Economic Area Partnership, which is trying to bring the counties together.

Wallace said she understands they are potential competitors, but that GWEDC is too professional to poach a target.

"If I have a company on the hook, they won't take it away," she said.

David Alfaro, director of Butler County Economic Development, said the cost and trust issues can be worked through.

"Maybe there is some misunderstanding about the role of GWEDC and how we, as partners, play into that," Alfaro said. "There are some communication gaps. But it's not where we can't get over some small hurdles."

Because she wasn't getting anywhere, Gerbino said she's stopped trying to push for a solution and asked somebody else to get involved.

The problem may get solved this year, said Keith Lawing, executive director of the Workforce Alliance of South Central Kansas.

Lawing, Unruh and others are taking on the role of bringing the parties together.

Lawing said everyone seems to agree that, ideally, a regional marketing effort is a good thing. The challenge is the details.

This week, Lawing said he will hold a teleconference of county economic development agencies. He'll ask them to set up meetings to work out those details. He expects a new agreement by the end of the year.

"There has to be a realization," Lawing said, "that there will be competition among the members, and that's OK."