Politics & Government

Wichita, Sedgwick County leaders meet to discuss economic growth strategy

City and county officials heard a plan Tuesday to develop job “clusters” outside aviation in an effort to diversify the local economy.

The Wichita City Council and the Sedgwick County Commission have been asked to support a funding agreement that would cover a Wichita State University economic analysis and consulting costs from StarNet, a California-based firm working with WSU on its innovation campus.

The agreement totals about $235,000. Wichita State and StarNet are asking the city and county to each contribute between $39,000 and $43,000 as economic partners. They are seeking the same amount from the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, and $20,000 from the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.

The proposed plan ties in with the jobs portion of the sales tax proposal that will be on the November ballot. If approved, the 1-cent-on-a-dollar sales tax is expected to collect nearly $400 million over five years. The money would go toward water, street maintenance, transit and job development.

“This will provide a framework for how we might decide as a city to allocate some of those sales tax funds,” council member Janet Miller said.

City Manager Robert Layton said the economic growth plan would provide a meaningful way to diversify the local economy regionally.

Sedgwick County commissioner Tim Norton expressed concern that the different entities working together would lead to dissolved boards and internal structures, which groups don’t typically respond well to.

“I don’t think you have to lose your identity to collaborate,” Layton said in response.

Council member James Clendenin expressed concern that other communities don’t see Wichita as a team player in developing the region economically.

“Wichita is the hole in the doughnut of the region right now” economically, he said.

Wichita has lost about 20,000 jobs in the past 10 years, fueled by turmoil in the aviation sector. The job loss has caused many in leadership roles to express the belief that Wichita must diversify its economy if it wants to rebound.

Economic consultant James Gollub, managing director of James Gollub Associates out of California, is working with StarNet.

He said that potential economic clusters for the Wichita area outside of aviation are livestock processing; oil and gas production and transport; hospitality and tourism; education and knowledge creation; financial services; transportation and logistics; food processing and manufacturing; marketing, design and publishing; biopharmaceuticals; downstream metal products; and agriculture.

Gary Schmitt, chairman of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition and division director for commercial banking and real estate lending at Intrust Bank, also presented an export market assessment.

The report found that nearly 28 percent of the Wichita metro economy depends on exports.

“Exports in our community equals jobs,” Schmitt said.

Every $1 billion in exports equals about 6,000 jobs, he said. However, Wichita lost more than $2.5 billion in exports between 2008 and 2012, he said.

Wichita’s skilled workforce would allow the area to diversify into other areas that have good export potential outside of aviation, he said.

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