Land Learjet expansion

Especially in light of Hawker Beechcraft’s latest layoffs, elected officials of Wichita and Sedgwick County should jump at the chance at a $52.7 million expansion of Bombardier Learjet and 450 new jobs – and help make the case to the parent company for why the project belongs in Wichita.

Announced Monday morning, before consideration at today’s Wichita City Council meeting, the deal involves $1 million each from the city and Sedgwick County to pay for new parking at Wichita Mid-Continent Airport that would be leased to Learjet. The Wichita Airport Authority would seek another $2 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help fund the new parking area. In addition, Learjet would get property-tax abatements for new and expanded facilities at the plant, and is negotiating with the state for more incentives. The proposal would accommodate specialized engineering design services for Bombardier military projects and regional jets and airliners, centralized information technology services for Bombardier operations throughout the United States, an expanded Bombardier Flight Test Center, a new aircraft delivery center, a new production flight center and a new Learjet 85 paint facility.

The proposal is all the sweeter because its high-paying jobs would come on top of the 2009 agreement with the state to assemble and finish the Learjet 85 in Wichita, which represented 600 new jobs.

It’s appropriate that the new agreement, which was crafted with the help of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, calls for Learjet to repay some or all of the money if the company falls short of its commitments regarding capital improvements and jobs. Similarly, in light of its 2010 public incentives deal with the state and local governments, Hawker Beechcraft will face penalties if its employment drops below 3,600 in the state – a figure it remains far above, even after last week’s 300 job cuts. As these companies fight to recover from the recession, taxpayers deserve to know that their investment in such deals is protected.

Some individuals on and off the City Council and County Commission may argue that Bombardier Learjet should pay for its own parking lots, rather than ask taxpayers to do it. But such thinking ignores the competitive realities of both aircraft manufacturing and business site selection.

As Gov. Sam Brownback recently told the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce: “I think we have to fund the incentives to keep competitive in the game. In an ideal world, you wouldn’t have any incentives. You’d just all compete on a business and economic basis. That’s not where we are.”

Like Brownback, local elected officials need to help Wichita and Sedgwick County not only play the game of economic development but win it as often as possible, especially when doing so means protecting Wichita’s venerable – and vulnerable – status as Air Capital of the World.

The Learjet deal promises to do so, as it grows and strengthens the roots of a planemaker that has proudly called Wichita home for 50 years.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman