City and county leaders acknowledged Thursday that there is work to be done in updating Wichita’s economy, but they think the community is up to the task.
Speaking at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual Chairman’s Lunch at Intrust Bank Arena, a panel of five local leaders discussed ways to fuel Wichita’s economy in the coming years.
The panel consisted of Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and City Manager Robert Layton; Sedgwick County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Howell and County Manager Michael Scholes, and chamber board Chairman Barry Schwan.
The theme of the lunch, which featured more than 500 attendees, focused on findings provided last year by Harvard-trained business and economics analyst James Chung, who grew up in Wichita.
Working on behalf of the Wichita Community Foundation, Chung identified four key areas that Wichita needs to improve on: business growth, talent retention, entrepreneurial ecosystem and image.
Longwell, who cited the South Central Kansas Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, said a big part of the solution involves a regional thought process and a commitment to keeping talented young people in the Wichita area.
500 Number of people who attended Thursday’s Chairman’s Lunch
“We know that we have talented people in this community,” Longwell said. “We just need to change our focus. We’re not going to abandon aviation, we’re just going to diversify in a much bigger way.
“For the first time, I feel like we’re doing that in a regional way, which we should have been doing for a long time.”
As Chung and others have pointed out, Wichita – traditionally an aviation industry super-hub – has been hit hard in recent years by several factors, including an overall economic downturn in the U.S., the globalization of manufacturing and the flight of thousands of working-age people.
According to Chung’s findings, Wichita lost more than 11,000 people — most between the ages of 35 and 54 — from 2010 to 2014 in what he termed “domestic migration.” Comparatively, other similar-sized cities were attracting population during the same period, including Oklahoma City (37,528), Des Moines (16,559) and Omaha (2,869).
Howell said much of the problem has simply to do with the way the community markets itself.
“If you listen to James Chung’s story, there is a reoccurring theme,” Howell said: “We don’t do a good enough job telling our own story.
“This community does not necessarily realize what we have to offer. We have a real problem with marketing, in my opinion.”
Howell touted the area’s “low-cost labor, infrastructure, low government burden and favorable tax situations” as reasons why companies should want to invest in Wichita and Sedgwick County.
One of the big pushes lately by government and public entities has been to enhance Wichita’s entrepreneurial mojo. Schwan said endeavors like Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus and 1 Million Cups, a support community for entrepreneurs that began meeting this week in Wichita, will help.
“If you live in Wichita, and you haven’t heard about entrepreneurship in the past 90 days in the newspaper or the media, you haven’t been paying attention,” Schwan said. “I think entrepreneurship is alive and well here.”
Along with complimenting WSU, Layton singled out Newman University – which last week announced plans to construct a new $24 million on-campus science building – for investing in avenues that could keep educated young professionals in the area after graduation.
“That new science building is going to go a long way toward Newman feeding that need for more highly trained employees in the health field,” Layton said.
“Health care is our number two field. I think we have a running start on a lot of these issues.”
Following the event, Tim Hess of Black Hills Energy said he thought the dire findings presented by Chung could be overblown.
“From my perspective, I wasn’t sure that we weren’t just coming off a bad economic era,” Hess said. “The people I deal with are still out there, still spending money, which is good for Wichita.
“If I could have stood up there and asked a question, I would have asked why we aren’t looking more at bringing new technologies into the area. That could be one way to grow.”
Sedgwick County Commissioner Dave Unruh, who attended the event, said he has seen more of a focus on how the Wichita area can better itself.
“There’s a considerable uptick in the intensity of everyone’s focus on trying to make our community the best it can be,” Unruh said. “Not only in message, but also in the tangible outcomes of jobs and business attraction.
“We all agree we have a great community, and we want to build on that foundation.”
We’re not going to abandon aviation, we’re just going to diversify in a much bigger way.
Jeff Longwell, Wichita mayor
On his way out of the arena following the program, Longwell emphasized that partnerships will be important going forward.
“We’re focusing on regionalism like we never have before,” he said. “We have a lot of new players that are coming to the table now. I’m not sure that people fully understand that. …
“We’re in a unique situation now, and we have some opportunities for success.”