Business

Is Wichita too pessimistic for its own good? Consultant thinks so

Janelle King, owner of the Workroom, shows off a Wichita bag Thursday at her shop at 150 N. Cleveland, which specializes in products by local artists. Wichita is “not that city that’s on a national radar as the cool place to be,” King said. “But that perception is dramatically changing.” (Nov. 17, 2016)
Janelle King, owner of the Workroom, shows off a Wichita bag Thursday at her shop at 150 N. Cleveland, which specializes in products by local artists. Wichita is “not that city that’s on a national radar as the cool place to be,” King said. “But that perception is dramatically changing.” (Nov. 17, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

“There’s nothing to do here.”

Negativity eats away at Wichita’s long-term economic future like a cancer, leading some of our most talented — the entrepreneur, the artist, the programmer, the National Merit Scholar — to think that Wichita is too small, too boring, too conservative.

It’s one piece of why Wichita – once a little Powerhouse on the Plains with Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurs who made their mark on the nation – has in recent decades turned sleepy, says James Chung, the consultant hired last year by the Wichita Community Foundation to find out why Wichita has fallen behind.

When the best thing people can say about their hometown is that it’s nice, that’s a red flag.

And that may be just a myth we tell ourselves.

The Chung Report, a website inspired by the Wichita research conducted by Chung’s firm Reach Advisors, produced a funny video of locals praising their town as friendly and helpful. Then they unveiled uncomfortable data that shows Wichita actually ranks low on civic engagement, such as doing favors for neighbors or seeing family. The reaction is disbelief.

37 percent of Wichitans surveyed who were leaving or said they would leave if they could

He’s working up a detailed analysis of the economic cost of such negativity for a spring visit, but he dropped this unsettling fact in advance:

Thirty-seven percent of Wichitans surveyed said they would leave if they could, or are in the process of moving, compared with 21 percent in a group of Midwestern cities that are performing at a higher economic level.

IB dreams

The students gathered around the conference table at East High got pretty animated when asked whether they thought they might stay in Wichita.

Students at the school’s elite International Baccalaureate program all said they will go to college, possibly prestigious out-of-state universities. They are, by definition, ambitious.

In a recent discussion, they said they love Wichita and respect those who stay. But they aren’t likely to go to college in Wichita, and some say they may not return after graduation.

Armaan Ahmed, a senior, was born at Wesley Medical Center, a first-generation American of Bengali immigrant parents. He’s only lived in Wichita.

The cultural and political conservatism bugs him, he says. Plus, he’s got big dreams.

“You don’t have to be ambitious to live in Wichita,” Ahmed said. “You can get by. You can make a good living.

“But you are missing that X factor that a lot of other cities have.”

I’d really love to see Wichita push it more.

Joshua Lawton, East High senior

“To me, it’s safe,” said senior Trevor Mahan. “It’s a safe city. Kansas, in general, is safe to live in. A lot of people have family here, and that is what connects them.”

By “safe” he meant too safe.

Senior Joshua Lawton said he’s the fourth generation of his family to attend East High. He’s considering applying to schools such as Cornell and Northwestern.

He praised the city and said people living here can have national and international careers, but even he said he’d like the city to have a bigger feel.

“I’d really love to see Wichita push it more,” he said.

A change of heart

Janelle King crossed the stage at Trinity High School in 1997 and kept going — and wasn’t interested in looking back.

“The mentality was that ‘Wichita sucks,’ ” said King, an interior designer and business owner, of what she heard from her peers.

After Kansas State University, her goal was San Francisco. The recession convinced her to settle for Kansas City, and she quickly fell in love. It was a big city with many neighborhoods and people who spoke to her artistic nature.

But she and her then-husband struggled financially, and then found out she was pregnant. They got an offer from family to move to Wichita in 2004.

It felt like a defeat, King said. She found that people in Wichita are nice, but not always accepting — perhaps the reason for the confusion in Chung’s video.

In a place like Boston, most people come from somewhere else, she said, and associate based on their interests and jobs. Even in Kansas City, many people are from elsewhere.

But in Wichita, that’s less common, which means people retain their old family and social connections, making it harder for newcomers to fit in.

“So when I returned here, it was like, ‘What high school did you go to?’ ” King said. “They think they are identifying everything about you.”

But, she was also pleasantly surprised by a growing number of small shops, eateries and events along East Douglas that seemed to consciously reject the franchised restaurant/big-box retailer model of the more suburban parts of the city.

For all you haters, it takes some proactive effort to open your eyes and look for it

Janelle King, owner of the Workroom

In 2013 King opened the Workroom at 150 N. Cleveland, a workshop for her custom interior design business that also features local art. Because she has a knack for knowing people and doing interesting things, she has become a key part of the developing downtown arts/culture/tech/entrepreneurship scene.

Wichita is still Wichita, King said, but people in the city’s heart are creating something new and different. It’s now more similar to what she liked so much in Kansas City.

She actually has become a cheerleader.

“I think we are still in the middle of (creating) it,” King said. “We’re not that city that’s on a national radar as the cool place to be. But that perception is dramatically changing.”

And for the doubters and cynics, she said, look around: Connect on social media or go to an events calendar, then get out of your basement and come downtown. There’s so much going on that she can’t get to everything she wants to.

“For all you haters, it takes some proactive effort to open your eyes and look for it,” she said. “The opportunities are here, but it takes some responsibility, instead of sitting at home.”

Ambivalence

Joe Wescott graduated from Kapaun Mount Carmel in 2004 and went to college at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.

He tried his hand at comedy and then writing for theater. He loved Chicago, he said, made lots of friends and got involved in the arts scene.

But when his wife got pregnant, they realized that Chicago is an awfully expensive place to raise a family. They moved back to Wichita.

It was the realization of a — well, not exactly a dream.

“When I was growing up, I clearly remember once driving by All-Star Sports on Webb Road and thinking, ‘OK, maybe I didn’t think it was that great a place, but what a great place to take my kids someday.’ 

That crystalizes the feeling that Wescott feels toward Wichita. He loved living in Chicago, but he’d much rather be raising his family here. He and his wife had their second child a few weeks ago.

It used to be (Music Theatre of Wichita) and a stick in the mud.

Joe Wescott, box office manager for the Orpheum Theatre and Intrust Bank Arena

He also thinks Wichita is too conservative culturally, which he theorizes is partly because of the low cost of housing.

“When I was in Chicago, you can own a house, but it won’t be huge,” he said. “That means you’re usually not home. Your life is really about where you want to belong, where are you a member.

“Here in Wichita, it’s the opposite. It’s more about what subdivision your house is in. That’s more where your cultural identity is.”

The good news is that his professional life here has gone well, he said. Wescott had some box office experience in Chicago and when they were looking at where to move, he got a job as house manager at the Orpheum Theatre. He is now box office manager for Select-a-Seat, which runs ticket sales for the Orpheum and Intrust Bank Arena.

And when he’s not babysitting his kids or the box offices, he has done some sketch comedy at the Orpheum and has had plays performed in Chicago. Wichita, he said, has grown richer culturally than it was when he left for the Windy City.

“The artist community is more robust than it was,” he said. “It used to be (Music Theatre of Wichita) and a stick in the mud.”

Is that optimism?

Like Wescott and King, Chung is encouraged by Wichita’s progress in the last few years. But as a guy swayed only by numbers, he’s cautious.

Wichita, he said, has deep-seated economic problems, which feed on – and are in turn fed by – the city’s pessimism. Nothing is fixed, yet, but at least people here have recognized the problems and shown a lot of energy in tackling them, he said.

Next spring, Chung will present more data and insights that will provide more tools for locals to attack the perception issue. He wouldn’t give much of a hint, but said he understands that there have been plenty of half-hearted campaigns in the past that have simply fed cynicism.

This time feels different, he said, because there seems to be more buy-in from more and different people.

“This is an important issue,” he said. “The good news is there are people who are stepping up and looking at the root causes and making the effort to change.

“I’m actually feeling pretty good that Wichita can get through this.”

High-performing cities are able to accept the younger generation into leadership positions smoothly to speed up new ideas and new talents, he said. In Wichita, though, there’s that cultural conservatism again.

“The problem is Wichita has been not bringing in the new generation at a fast rate,” Chung said.

Again, though, he said changes appear to be accelerating.

“That’s another reason I’m so pumped,” he said. “Some of that is starting to happen.”

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

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