Eagle editorial: Tankers will boost city

Wichita got a great, well-timed boost with Wednesday’s news that McConnell Air Force Base will be the main active-duty operating base for the KC-46A tankers, emerging the winner in the 54-base field. The Air Force’s faith in McConnell is well-placed, and the community must do all it can to support the effort.

McConnell also was in the running to become a formal training base for the new tankers, a job won by Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma.

But McConnell got what it wanted most with the Air Force’s decision, meaning it can expect to receive 36 new tankers in 2016, and see the economic benefits of hosting them. That’s the perfect role for McConnell, which is currently the world’s largest tanker base, with 62 KC-135s, and the home of the Air Force’s 22nd Air Refueling Wing and the Air Force Reserves’ 931st Air Refueling Group.

So even though Boeing Wichita won’t be part of the $35 billion contract to build 179 tankers after all, due to Boeing’s decision to leave town by the end of this year, some of those planes will end up calling Wichita home. That’s as it should be, because no U.S. city knows and appreciates air-refueling tankers and their vital mission more than Wichita does.

As Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said in a statement: “We’re thrilled that McConnell AFB has been recognized as an indispensable part of America’s defenses and excited about the opportunities this creates for the rest of Kansas.”

The Air Force’s landmark decision for Wichita came amid a week of mixed economic news, what with Via Christi Health’s decision to lay off 325 people locally among up to 400 job cuts statewide, the folding of the Wichita Wings soccer franchise (again) and the prediction by Wichita State University researchers that local economic activity will decline slightly over the next six months.

The other welcome development concerns Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ choice to open a call center at Office This in southeast Wichita. The deal, secured with the help of $200,000 forgivable loans approved this week by the city and county and $1.6 million in state incentives, will mean 907 jobs over five years.

As much as the Air Force’s decision means now, in the context of a local economy still struggling to grow, what may matter even more is how it positions and fortifies McConnell for the coming base-closing and budget-slashing fights in Washington, D.C. President Obama’s 2014 budget requested $192 million for infrastructure for the eventual operating base for the tankers. Such investment now is bound for Wichita, which should benefit local contractors and help protect McConnell long term.

Congratulations and thanks to all who fought for and won this exciting new role for McConnell and Wichita.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman