Officials: Tapping into the I-35 corridor for talent is vital for Wichita

Wichita State University is trying to recruit students from the I-35 corridor from Dallas to Kansas City. WSU president John Bardo calls it an economic megaregion.
Wichita State University is trying to recruit students from the I-35 corridor from Dallas to Kansas City. WSU president John Bardo calls it an economic megaregion. File/The Wichita Eagle

As far as Wichita State University is concerned, Dallas is part of the Sunflower State.

So are Oklahoma City, Tulsa and the metropolitan area of Kansas City, Mo.

Prospective students in all of those cities are being allowed to pay in-state tuition if they attend Wichita State. The chosen cities all have something in common: They are along or near I-35.

“That was a very deliberate decision, concentrating on the I-35 corridor,” said John Tomblin, vice president for research and technology and the executive director of the National Institute for Aviation Research at WSU.

With just 2.9 million people, Tomblin said, Kansas is a fairly small state in population. That prompted a question among officials trying to grow Wichita’s economy.

“How we can increase the population draw and make sure we have enough talent?” Tomblin asked.

The in-state tuition incentive is one answer to that question, he said.

Undergraduate students enrolling in 15 hours per semester save more than $8,700 per year paying in-state tuition, according to the university. Graduate students enrolling in nine hours per semester save more than $3,700 per year.

It’s already paying dividends.

Wichita State has seen a 38 percent increase in freshmen from those targeted cities from 2016 to 2017. The in-state tuition for corridor cities has been introduced in phases beginning more than two years ago.

The Kansas City metro area was added just last fall. As recently as 2012, WSU attracted just 18 students from the targeted cities. In the fall of 2017, the number was 168.

“That, to me, is amazing,” said Andrew Nave, executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Wichita Partnership. “It’s not huge yet, but it’s growing.

“A few years ago, we knew them (students from those five areas) by name.”

The goal, Tomblin said, is to have half of the students from those targeted cities find jobs in or around Wichita when they graduate.

“We’re growing our economy” by doing that, he said.

Yet WSU president John Bardo cautions that Wichita must do more to take advantage of its place on the I-35 corridor. An economic megaregion, centered around the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, is emerging along I-35, he wrote in a 2016 essay called “Renewing Wichita’s Promise.”

“As the corridor is emerging, Wichita is not a major consideration,” Bardo said in the essay. “And, perhaps more importantly, Wichita itself has not focused a great deal of attention on how it can and should link itself to this emerging driver of the Midwestern regional economy.

“This is a crucial issue and without a refocusing of economic development efforts in the area, it is possible that Wichita will become an increasing economic backwater.”

Wichita is projected to grow at little more than a third of the rate of the I-35 corridor as a whole between now and 2022, according to statistics provided by the Center for Economic Development and Business Research. Median household income growth is projected to lag more than a half-percent behind the corridor as a whole.

For more than a year now, the Greater Wichita Partnership, through the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, has been meeting with local officials and agencies within the 10-county region to get a clearer picture of transportation patterns and infrastructure needs.

“We would set their county maps in front of them and have them tell stories” about how their roadways are used by commuters, shippers and even tourists, said Heather Denker, manager of special projects for Greater Wichita Partnership.

There hasn’t been a unified voice when outlining infrastructure needs feeding into the I-35 corridor from south-central Kansas, she said. That’s important when seeking state and federal dollars for improvements or additions.

Manufacturers looking to relocate or expand are going to want a strong infrastructure to connect efficiently with the corridor, Nave said. That’s a must, he said, “when there are so many other good locations you can consider.”

Old barriers are falling as economic development officials across the region are recognizing the value of working together rather than competing for finite resources, he said.

“It’s not mutually exclusive anymore,” Nave said. “It’s not, ‘If I win, you lose.’

“There’s understanding that this (corridor) is the network for all of us.”

Stan Finger: 316-268-6437, @StanFinger