Wichita must change its thinking to stop decline, start to grow, analyst says

Wichita native James Chung addresses a packed house at the new Advanced Learning Library Monday evening. Chung was giving an update on Wichita's strengths, problems and potential. (June 11, 2018)
Wichita native James Chung addresses a packed house at the new Advanced Learning Library Monday evening. Chung was giving an update on Wichita's strengths, problems and potential. (June 11, 2018) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita has to fundamentally change its approach to growth, or the stagnation that has plagued the city for decades will continue, a Wichita-raised and Harvard-trained economic analyst said Monday.

While other cities across the Midwest have grown significantly over the past decade in a thriving economy, Wichita has actually declined, James Chung said Monday during a presentation that drew gasps at times from an overflow crowd at the new Advanced Learning Library.

"The market is saying very clearly that the Wichita way is not working," Chung said after his final report on the city's strengths, problems and potential.

The city has to invest more — and find ways to say 'yes' much more often — if it wants a brighter future, he said.

"This is a city that has historically missed a lot of opportunities," Chung said, because Wichita commonly says "no" when most other cities say "yes."

"There's a wiring for that" no "that doesn't exist in other cities," Chung said.

One of the first changes resulting from Chung's assessment is the creation of a Talent Ecosystem Fund by the Wichita Community Foundation, announced Monday night. The $1 million fund will invest in workforce issues, talent development and lifelong learning.

While Wichita's gross domestic product has been flat since 2010 — actually falling one percent — that figure increased 16 percent nationally.

While every comparative city in the central United States saw growth, Wichita declined.

A common explanation for Wichita's stagnation has been that manufacturing jobs — a staple of the local economy — have struggled to rebound, Chung said. But other cities relying substantially on manufacturing have seen solid growth this decade, he said.

That growth means people who live in most comparable mid-sized cities in the central U.S. earn $10,000 more than Wichita residents do; their home is worth an average of $50,000 more and their average net worth is $130,000 higher.

That difference, Chung said, "is enough to send a child to college."

Wichita ranks in the bottom 20 percent in the country in net domestic migration this decade, losing more than 18,000 people. The two largest groups leaving are college-educated women under the age of 45 and minorities with an associate's degree or higher, he said.

But it's not all bad news, Chung said.

There's been a significant turnaround in just the past two years in Wichita's perception of itself. While just 27 percent of Wichita residents wanted to stay in the city in 2016, that number had jumped to 42 percent in 2018. That's on par with other Midwestern cities now.

People are more optimistic about Wichita's future now: 36 percent in 2018, compared with 20 percent two years ago.

"Wichita has done a great job of improving its perception," Chung said.

But 36 percent is still too low, he said, and people need to do more.

"There's lots of talk about momentum," he said after his presentation, "but we can’t assume we’ve triggered the flywheel of perpetual motion that's going to carry everything forward."

The new library, which formally opens Saturday, is an example of how the city can pull together, he said. The city impressed fans and officials alike in how it came together to host NCAA tournament games last March.

Those examples show Wichita has what it takes to succeed, Chung said.

"I'd like that to be more of the DNA of Wichita going forward," he said.

But it will be up to Wichita residents to figure out how to make that happen, Chung said.

"It comes down to the will of the city," he said.

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