Step up economic development

There is every reason to think that when the Wichita economy starts roaring again, aerospace will remain its main engine. As locals zealously guard that industry from out-of-state and international suitors, though, they also must be aggressive in designing an economic future that's rich with diversity and quick to adapt.

Since last fall, the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition's consulting firm, Dallas-based Site Selection Group, has been analyzing the community's economy and identifying the best opportunities to expand.

Perhaps the consultants' presentation Thursday to The Eagle editorial board contained no real surprises, including the recommended industries to target along with aerospace: medical (device and equipment manufacturing, materials research and design), alternative energy (design and manufacturing related to wind, solar, biofuels), and business and professional (headquarters, shared service and processing centers).

But along with the experts' list came a clear and important message: Like it or not, Wichita cannot sit back and expect its time-tested assets, including skilled manufacturing workers and low costs, to sell themselves in the feverishly competitive business of attracting, growing and retaining companies. Wichita will need to win new companies and jobs with the help of more economic development tools than are available today.

What's needed, as the consultants' report puts it, is "a dedicated and flexible long-term funding stream to enhance economic development competitiveness." In this respect, Wichita even falls short of Kansas cities such as Topeka, Manhattan, Hutchinson, Salina and Pittsburg, which devote increments of sales taxes to economic development. Junction City has a property-tax mill levy for that purpose.

In addition, nearly a year after the majority on the Sedgwick County Commission nixed county staff's bold proposal to take the lead on a "shovel-ready" industrial park in Bel Aire, the area still needs to "build a coalition to create large, shovel-ready sites," the consultants said.

The GWEDC, president Vicki Pratt Gerbino and the GWEDC stakeholders, including Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita, also need to hone their shared mission and make some changes, such as bringing labor union leadership to the team.

Whether it's having incentives or zoned land right and ready for industry, the idea is for the community to have what a business wants when and where it's wanted.

"The process has to be clear, fast and controlled," said King White, president of Site Selection Group.

"And result in certainty," added senior vice president David Brandon.

The consultants' assessment began as the economy was ablaze with layoffs and employers and public officials alike were hunkered down.

Now, with the economy's stirring likely to lead to an economic development gold rush, as Brandon told the editorial board, Wichita has "got to get ready and stay ready." Local leaders have the next move.