When a plane slammed into a FlightSafety International facility in west Wichita on Oct. 30, sparking an inferno and ending four lives, the immediate local response was the only possible one amid such a tragedy: How can we help?
Now, surely that generous community spirit can extend to enabling the company to rebuild, expand and recover from the crash, even if doing so necessitates some public financial assistance – or a solution that bypasses Sedgwick County’s government.
The Eagle’s Dion Lefler reported over the weekend that the new conservative majority on the County Commission had blocked a request that the county match Wichita in providing help to FlightSafety.
According to Lefler’s reporting, the cash part of the proposed package was in the range of $300,000 in forgivable loans, with the county and city sharing the expense equally and most of the money going to replace a flight simulator. Other public incentives could be involved.
City and county officials acknowledge the company hasn’t come close to meeting the job-creation obligations that accompanied a total $300,000 forgivable loan from the city and county in 2008. That’s a fair consideration under ordinary circumstances.
But there was nothing normal about what happened to FlightSafety Oct. 30. As City Manager Robert Layton said: “We wouldn’t even be here talking about this if it wasn’t for a disaster.”
Similarly, the city approved $59.5 million in industrial revenue bonds to help Spirit AeroSystems repair damage after the 2012 tornado.
County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn questioned the need to help FlightSafety because the company is a subsidiary of billionaire (and Democratic donor) Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. Second-guessing and shaming of companies seeking public tools available to them has become common at the County Commission bench in recent years. Never mind the message that sends to businesses, especially those of long standing in the community faced with multiple lucrative offers to move elsewhere.
A recent economic impact study credited FlightSafety with about $25 million a year in economic activity locally, in part because of the thousands of pilots and technicians who patronize hotels and restaurants while in Wichita to train in Cessna, Learjet, Beechcraft and Hawker products at FlightSafety’s facilities. Wichita has had the world’s highest concentration of FlightSafety centers.
FlightSafety is a key part of the aviation cluster that business and elected leaders hope to build on even as they pursue diversification of the local economy. Local officials should be working on strategies to bring even more flight training to town, not telling a company trying to recover from a devastating fire that it’s on its own. Leaders need to make this work, with or without Sedgwick County’s participation and help.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman