Public comments about the City Council’s consideration of incentives for companies turned into criticism of the outgoing Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce chairman and of the city’s economic development strategy Tuesday.
That, in turn, sparked a spirited response from council members.
Chamber Chairman Wayne Chambers attended the council meeting to represent his company, High Touch Technologies, as it sought up to $1.57 million in industrial revenue bonds to remodel its building downtown for use as a corporate headquarters.
Industrial revenue bonds are issued by governments without any taxpayer liability. They provide financing for improvements at companies and often include tax breaks on the improvements.
John Todd, vice president of the Pachyderm Club, questioned Chambers’ position on the Chamber of Commerce while asking for incentives.
Council member Janet Miller said: “To have someone impugn the reputation of Wayne Chambers is professionally and personally shameful.”
“To make it sound like he’s a bad guy because he currently volunteers many, many hours a week to be the chair and has for the past year on the local chamber of commerce is so insulting,” Miller said. “What a way to end his year of service to be publicly insulted in that way. I’m angered and insulted by it myself.”
Chambers said in an interview that despite the criticisms, “you just have to keep doing what’s right, support the employees, support the community and create jobs.”
The comments make Wichita “less business friendly, certainly,” Chambers said. He said his company often gets pitches to relocate to Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas.
But he said he’d prefer to keep headquarters in Wichita. High Touch has 120 employees here and 200 total throughout the U.S. It agreed as part of its deal with the city to add another 50 jobs.
Wichita should have a “regulatory climate that doesn’t depend on bribing companies to come or to stay but creates ideal conditions for the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish,” Todd told the council.
“Did I catch your first statement that we’re involved in bribing? Did you say bribing? … I don’t think that as a government agency we’re allowed to bribe,” council member Pete Meitzner replied.
“You may as well just call somebody a criminal,” said Mayor Carl Brewer later in the meeting.
Wichita State University analyzes each proposed bond issue to determine its return on investment for the city. Myron Ackerman, another resident who spoke during public comments, questioned that analysis.
“I’d like to audit their figures and see because frankly if you asked me to come up with an analysis and you don’t show anyone the details, I can (give you a return). … But that’s called fraud. And the only thing that deters fraud is analysis,” Ackerman said.
Council members responded by saying the economic analysis documents showing the return on investments were open to the public.
“To have someone come down here and call WSU, a nationally recognized university, a fraud for its performance and conduction of economic development return is astounding,” Miller said.
Brewer said he was disappointed the city was being held to different standards than the state by the commenters.
“I don’t see these same comments and same individuals going to the state of Kansas and talking to state legislators or the governor about what are you getting on your return on investment because the governor recognizes that we must have jobs here inside our communities and cities and he’s doing the exact same thing we’re doing,” Brewer said.
The council unanimously approved four economic development incentive agreements:
▪ Up to $9.52 million in industrial revenue bonds for Bombardier Learjet to improve the Bombardier Flight Test Center and pay for architectural and engineering design services, machinery and computer equipment. Learjet has agreed to create 450 new jobs by 2017 that are not related to its Learjet 85 program.
▪ Up to $40 million in industrial revenue bonds for Cessna to improve its facilities, computer equipment, tooling, furniture and fixtures and updated production space. Cessna plans to add 50 employees to its work force of 5,436 by the end of 2018.
▪ Up to $1.57 million in industrial revenue bonds for High Touch Technologies and its real estate holding entity to remodel its building downtown for use as a corporate headquarters. The deal includes High Touch hiring an additional 50 employees with an average annual salary of $65,000. The city will rent 180 parking spaces nearby for $35 per stall per month for five years.
▪ A $90,000 forgivable loan to Apex Engineering to help offset capital investments. The company plans to add 108 new jobs to its current 168 jobs. The county is also being asked for $90,000.