Incentives matter

Sedgwick County needs all the jobs it can get, with other cities and even countries lining up for any cast-offs. A business with jobs to offer shouldn’t have to be publicly likened to a thief when it seeks economic development incentives legally available to it.

A developer shouldn’t have to expect that signing onto a public-private partnership in Wichita means facing down a protest petition and, if it succeeds, paying for a ballot referendum.

Nor should the area’s congressman be leading the crusade to kill, among other energy subsidies, a production tax credit that has been vital to the region’s wind-energy fortunes and led to seven manufacturing facilities in Kansas and last week’s announcement of a Siemens distribution center in Wichita.

Yet that’s the sour welcome that potential businesses and developers are getting from some in Wichita and Sedgwick County during this worst downturn since the Great Depression.

The effort by Americans for Prosperity-Kansas to challenge part of the financing of the downtown Ambassador hotel project continues, and a deal for Johnson Controls recently took a beating from some elected officials and public speakers.

True, the latter company won enough votes to secure forgivable loans of $42,500 each from the city and county, but only after Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau asserted that the 182 positions moving from Norman, Okla., were “going to come here no matter what” and after public speakers decried the loan program as “corporate welfare,” “free money” and “crony capitalism” contributing to “the destruction of civil society.”

In fact, the Johnson Controls jobs will combine with the 1,050 full- and part-time workers the company already employs in Wichita and Maize to further diversify the economy, a badly needed hedge against aircraft manufacturing’s volatility.

Before public incentives are offered, of course, the private partners and deals need to be fully vetted. But even Gov. Sam Brownback understands that public tools, including a deal-closer fund, are crucial to the battle for new business. “I think we have to fund the incentives to keep competitive in the game,” he recently told the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce.

The libertarian formula for economic development might serve Wichita and Sedgwick County in a utopia in which all communities and states competed for new jobs on the same playing field. But that place exists only in fantasy.

In reality, the competition is cutthroat and the field slants away from south-central Kansas. If tools such as tax-increment financing districts, community development districts, historic tax credits and more are in place, businesses are going to want to access and use them to their fullest. In a recent national survey of site selectors — the firms that shop for places to open or expand companies — state and local incentives tied with labor costs as the top considerations in such decisions.

As Wichita chamber chairman Lynn Nichols told county commissioners last week, reminding them that more than 20,000 aerospace jobs have been lost in the community in just the past three years: “Whether we like it or not, the marketplace of competition is real and getting more competitive every day. If we choose as a community not to compete, then we will lose.”

Wichita needs to compete — without apologies, and with every tool in its economic development arsenal.