Sustaining Wichita’s entrepreneurial comeback into the future

Robert Litan
Robert Litan

An entrepreneurial resurgence has begun in Wichita.

In just the last year, we have seen the launch of a new startup accelerator e2e; weekly 1 Million Cups events showcasing new companies; Startup Grind featuring successful Wichita entrepreneurs; and the opening of Wichita State University’s new Innovation Campus.

Other good news includes Cargill’s plan to put its 800-plus employees in a new building on the site of The Wichita Eagle’s long-time headquarters and the movement of The Eagle and to another Old Town location.

What’s next?

Economic research by Harvard’s Ed Glaeser, a leading urban scholar, suggests that the best indicator of a city’s future growth prospects is its ability to attract and retain young college graduates. That is because this demographic will be the main source of successful new businesses, while staffing growing businesses like SNT Media or Koch Industries that pay good wages.

A study by the American Institute for Economic Research ranked the cultural and economic desirability of post-college destinations for college graduates. Among cities near our size, Wichita does not rank in the top 20. Lincoln, Neb. (11), Des Moines (13) and Omaha (14) do.

Our task is not only to crack the top 20 but to keep moving up the scale. WSU’s policy for giving in-state tuition to students living along the I-35 corridor should help, but out-of-area students will only stay here if our city is successful in basic functions that are important to all residents: ensuring good local schools, low crime, and things to do.

The biggest challenge for our future will be improving Wichita’s schools. The most recent state assessment finds that at most only 1 in 4 Wichita area students are on track to be college ready.

This is not only a tragedy for the majority of our city’s students, but this threatens the long-term economic viability of our city. The new school superintendent for USD 259 must not only be ready to innovate to change business as usual, but the school board must have his or her back in doing so.

Reducing crime is also a top priority. Wichita’s violent crime rate is roughly double the national and the Kansas statewide averages.

The good news is that Wichita’s new police chief, Gordon Ramsay, has a great track record for innovative policing, which he has brought here.

He knows, as research documents, that criminals are most deterred by the likelihood of a speedy arrest, and that having the trust of the community is essential for catching criminals.

There is more good news when it comes to area amenities. We have long had good museums and, of course, Shocker basketball.

Under the leadership of Mayor Jeff Longwell and Greater Wichita Partnership president Jeff Fluhr – and with help from private developers – downtown is coming back. Wichita will get a needed big boost if the proposal for a new baseball stadium comes to fruition.

Finally, Wichita – and the nation – will not prosper in the future unless economic growth is broadly shared, which in practical terms means preserving and ideally expanding jobs that pay middle-class wages.

Historically, many of these jobs have been in manufacturing, but as a share of overall jobs, these have been declining for decades in the U.S. and in other rich countries.

Nonetheless, Wichita can more than hold its own given its history of employing and training manufacturing workers. In the 21st century, however, only those with advanced manufacturing skills will be making things.

That is why the merger of Wichita Area Technical College with WSU – which has been approved by the Kansas Board of Regents, but awaits legislative approval – is so important. The merger will enable manufacturing workers in the future also to gain entrepreneurial, business and liberal arts training that will be important throughout their lives.

Wichita’s comeback is a work in progress, but thank goodness for the progress.

Robert Litan, an attorney and economist, is adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also serves as a member of the President's Advisory Council at WSU. Twitter: @BobLitan