Analyst: Wichita at 'a really interesting moment' in its history

Painted turn lanes in the Douglas Design District have added to the urban beautification of Wichita.
Painted turn lanes in the Douglas Design District have added to the urban beautification of Wichita. The Wichita Eagle

It will be up to the people who live in Wichita — not government or corporate leaders — whether the city is to shake off decades of stagnation and achieve meaningful growth and prosperity, a Wichita-raised and Harvard-trained economic analyst says.

Wichita has been "stuck in neutral for about three decades, with basically no growth, amidst the landscape of a growing U.S. economy," said James Chung, who graduated from Wichita Collegiate and now runs Reach Advisors, a New York-based strategy and research firm.

Chung's firm was hired three years ago by the Wichita Community Foundation to analyze Wichita's strengths, problems and potential. His initial report was sobering, saying Wichita had lost its mojo. It identified four key challenges where the community can make changes and influence its future: its business cycle, human capital, entrepreneurship and perception.

He is returning to Wichita to offer an update on how the city is responding to those challenges. His presentation, which is open to the public, will be at 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Advanced Learning Library, 711 W. Second St. N.

"We're at a really interesting point in Wichita at the moment," Chung said.

There are clear indications the city's mood has shifted, he said.

"The city is feeling less negative and more optimistic," Chung said.

That positive energy is key to getting people pulling on the same rope and moving forward, he said. While government policies and corporate support are important, he said, it's the will of the people that drives change.

"It’s the citizens moving forward ... not just waiting and relying on someone else to move things forward," he said.

Project Wichita, an initiative to establish a vision of what residents of the region want it to be in 10 years, is "a good step," Chung said.

"I hope they succeed," he said. "They're doing a wonderful job of collecting input."

Wichita was the same size as cities such as Austin and Charlotte in 1980. While those cities have grown dramatically over the last four decades, Wichita has stagnated.

Charlotte, Austin, Grand Rapids and Des Moines are examples of cities that developed visions of what they wanted to be and then made what Chung called "strong decisions" to move forward.

"There wasn't a silver bullet, which Wichita seems to keep wanting to find," Chung said.

There wasn't one single answer that worked for every city, he said. Each had to identify individual strengths and work together to build on them.

"Wichita had so many assets to build on in the ‘80s — a lot of talent in the city, a lot of successful businesses, tremendous opportunities to build new businesses. They missed that window."

Another window is opening for Wichita, he said. The question is whether the city is ready to make the most of it.

"There's still fantastic assets here," he said. "But there's more challenge now."