Politics & Government

Sedgwick County ends funding agreement with economic development coalition

Sedgwick County Courthouse. (Oct. 12, 2011)
Sedgwick County Courthouse. (Oct. 12, 2011) File photo

How the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition attracts businesses could change now that the county has ended an agreement to give the group $300,000 annually for marketing costs and campaigns.

The coalition’s chairman, Gary Schmitt, said Wednesday that the group’s participation in trade shows, among the venues where marketing efforts take place, could be the first areas affected if the economic development partnership loses what amounts to 20 percent of its yearly budget.

County commissioners voted 3-2 Wednesday to terminate the long-term funding agreement with the economic development group after the city, which also is a partner in the contract, refused to amend the cancellation notice date in the agreement from June 1 to Sept. 1. The date change would have allowed the county more time to decide whether it wanted to continue contributing the promised amount.

Under the agreement, both the city and the county had agreed to give the coalition $300,000 a year through 2018.

“We’ll start looking at our budget for 2016 probably in September or October,” Schmitt said. “That’s when it (the termination) will have the largest effect – for us to look at the budget and figure out what we’re going to have to cut in terms of marketing the community, the region.”

Trade shows “are where we put up booths and take manufacturers and partners and go down there to find new opportunities, new contracts,” he said.

“I would guess that those would be the first things affected by a lower budget.”

The economic development coalition is among 17 county-backed organizations that were recently put on notice that their funding amounts could be reduced. Last week, the commission voted 4-1 to amend its agreement with the organization, but the City Council’s vote on Tuesday blocked that move, saying it’s bad business for governments to cancel or change contracts halfway through.

Although commissioners who voted in favor of canceling the agreement said Wednesday there may be room for a future contract with the economic development coalition, Schmitt said there has been no formal discussion of that possibility with the group to date.

“I think we’ve made some great strides, and I’m looking forward to what we will have done in the next year,” Schmitt said. “It’s just disappointing that we don’t have the confidence of the county’s investment at this time over their concerns over their budget issues.”

The current funding agreement will end Jan. 1.

Commissioner Jim Howell, who voted to terminate the contract along with Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau, said Wednesday that canceling the agreement won’t end the county’s relationship with the economic development coalition. He also said it won’t affect the amount of money the coalition receives from the county in 2015.

The trio have cited budget pressures as the reason for initially amending the contract. On Wednesday, they said the city’s refusal to amend the contract forced them into canceling by the original June 1 date.

“We are invested, we have been invested” in the economic development coalition and job creation, Howell said.

“Giving us the ability to make changes in the future if we need to is really what this is all about. … Had they (the city) made the right decision to change the date in the contract, we would have a contract moving forward.”

After the meeting, Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell said the city wishes the county “would honor the agreement that’s in place.” He said the city intends to continue funding the coalition at the contracted amount.

Commissioner Dave Unruh, who voted against terminating the contract, said during Wednesday’s meeting he also thinks the contract should remain in place.

“Breaking contracts, from my business experience, is a really significant action to take,” he said. “If we get a recommended budget and see that we need to make some significant changes, then we go to our partners and say, ‘Help us out.’ ”

Commissioner Tim Norton, who also voted no, said he’s concerned the commission is using the county’s budget as “a smoke screen” to justify ending its relationships with several organizations, including the National Association of Counties and the Regional Economic Area Partnership.

“With our vote today, we’ll be out of GWEDC,” he said. “We’ve sent letters to Project Access, the Child Advocacy Center, Exploration Place, the River Festival, the zoo. We’re looking at Comcare and some private position types of projects. All of these things have been enumerated and are on a list, on a checklist.

“Anyone that thinks this is just an isolated incident, that we want to talk just about economic development, is very confused and doesn’t understand what’s happening in our community right now.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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