Wichitans praise deal to keep aircraft company here

Hawker Beechcraft (October 18, 2010)
Hawker Beechcraft (October 18, 2010) The Wichita Eagle

With a scarf wrapped around his neck, Tom Smith rang his Salvation Army bell as he stood at his post at Towne East. Now, he can't swear the previous day's news about Hawker Beechcraft staying in Wichita was the reason for Wednesday's more generous giving.

"But it's gotten better," Miller said. "The feeling around the mall is different. People are more chipper than normal."

That also seemed to be the mood around town. While there are some skeptics about the Hawker Beechcraft deal, most small-business owners and shoppers alike were feeling an uptick in confidence.

The news that a $45 million package worked out between Hawker Beechcraft and state and local officials to keep the aircraft company and at least 4,000 jobs in Wichita for the next 10 years seemed to bring a collective sigh of relief.

Sheldon Birmingham, owner of Motor City Kansas, a hobby shop for motoring enthusiasts at 8663 W. Central, did more than sigh. He gave a 25 percent discount on all of his in-stock items to Hawker employees showing a company ID badge.

Just to celebrate.

"This whole town freezes whenever there is bad news, especially in the aircraft industry," Birmingham said. "Good news changes everybody's spirit.

"Now, everyone feels altogether better. We're a more successful and happy place."

And how we feel has a lot to do with how we spend.

"Some people weren't spending just because of so much bad news," said Cindy Claycomb, a business professor at Wichita State University who specializes in retail sales and marketing.

"Even though what was going on at Hawker didn't necessarily affect them directly, it goes back to that psychological part of consumers —'Well, things aren't so good, maybe I shouldn't spend now.'

"This (the deal) loosens people up —'Maybe I'm OK, maybe we're going to be OK.' "

With nearly 19,000 layoffs — including 14,350 in aviation manufacturing — in the six-county area since October 2008, it was hard for anyone to feel OK.

Then a like breath of fresh air came the news about Hawker Beechcraft, which for months had been considering moving to Louisiana or elsewhere.

"It lightens my mood," said Nancy Robinson, owner of the Best of Times, an alternative gift and card shop at 6452 E. Central, a couple of miles west of the Hawker Beechcraft complex. "I'm very relieved."

Robinson said her business is up 5 percent over last December, but she knows it could be better.

"People tell me they come into my store just to cheer themselves up because I have so many things that make them laugh," she said. "But they don't always buy. Now maybe they'll laugh and buy more."

Early forecasts for Christmas sales in the Wichita area showed an increase of 2 to 3 percent, Claycomb said.

Separating the final results from Christmas and any surge brought on by the Hawker Beechcraft deal would be difficult.

"But if we see in January the sales are up 4 percent," she said, "then maybe we can say some of it was related to Hawker."

Brenda Harvey-Smith was finishing up Christmas shopping at Towne East on Wednesday.

"I thought (Hawker Beechcraft) was going to move," she said. "Or plead for the state to give them some money, which they did."

Regardless, she said, "This is good news for Wichita."

It would have been particularly difficult for the city to lose one its iconic businesses. Hawker Beechcraft is now owned by investment companies, but its roots go back to 1932 and the Beech family.

"My father and uncle both worked at Hawker Beechcraft," said Cindy Carnahan, a broker with J.P. Weigand & Sons. "I grew up on Beechcraft being part of my life. I would have been very sad to see a great organization leave."

But now, she said, "This news breeds confidence. You must have confidence to buy anything of note."

Two Brothers BBQ sits across from Hawker on South Greenwich. Kyla Ryan, part owner in the family business, can look out the window and see Plant IV.

"I think it's awesome they're staying," she said. "Business had already slowed down some. I was a little worried that they might leave. It was going to hurt all the businesses around here."

David Ocker was eating lunch at Two Brothers, taking a break from his work in information technology at Scholfield Auto Plaza at Kellogg and Greenwich.

"It's a relief just because these people won't be losing their jobs and the money won't be leaving Wichita," Ocker said. "It's a trickle-down effect."

Miller, the Salvation Army bell ringer, knows that. He's in the guttering business with his nephew.

"If Hawker had left, it would have had a definite effect on my budget and thought pattern," he said. "If you're not working, you're not spending money. And you sure aren't putting up any guttering.

"This is a lot better."

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