Wichita got its wake-up call. Now it’s time to get up and go

James Chung addresses a crowd at the new Advanced Learning Library. "I've never been in a city where people are so willing, proactively, to talk negatively about higher education," Chung said.
James Chung addresses a crowd at the new Advanced Learning Library. "I've never been in a city where people are so willing, proactively, to talk negatively about higher education," Chung said. File photo

A native Wichitan came home this week and attempted to slap some sense into his city. He did it with numbers and charts and detail, the way a Harvard-educated researcher slaps.

But it was a hard slap.

James Chung’s presentation described Wichita as a city that has slowed its own growth through a lack of public investment and the private sector’s unwillingness to reinvest in the community at a rate similar to comparable Midwest cities.

Chung’s message, part of the Wichita Community Foundation’s Focus Forward project, was a eye-opener to a community feeling good about itself through increased civic pride and a more vibrant downtown.

Many, though, will doubt Chung’s words. They’ll say he’s nit-picking with our growth, or wonder why we have to think bigger.

The message should be clear: Wichita can be happy where it is, but with that comes a danger of long-term stagnation. In many ways, it’s already here, and it should be a call to action.

City and county leaders must put political differences aside and be willing to say “yes.” Business leaders must look at themselves and colleagues and ask if they’re truly making reinvestment in the city. More people at the top of Wichita’s private sector must acknowledge the problems and get involved.

The city is moving forward so slowly that it, Chung says, is still not out of a decade-old recession while comparable cities — Omaha, Des Moines — are well out of it and thriving.

There were other sobering points from Chung’s visit. College-educated women under 45 are leaving to find work elsewhere, the result of a higher-than-normal wage gap. Same for minority workers with at least an associate’s degree. Manufacturing growth isn’t on par with other cities. Gross domestic product increased 16 percent nationally since 2010, but flatlined and lost 1 percent in Wichita.

Even a good number — a low unemployment rate — can hurt in terms of attracting new business. Companies don’t see quality pools of job candidates in need of work.

Chung’s analysis can certainly be viewed with some skepticism. The city has made improvements since his 2015 presentation — a much more dire warning about Wichita’s trends in investment and entrepreneurship. Data shows Wichita isn’t moving backward — much.

But if that’s the best you can say about the Wichita economy, that means there’s not enough forward movement.

Project Wichita, which is gathering community input for a vision of the region in 2028, touted that it quickly raised more than $400,000 from businesses to fund the initiative. But more significant private investment is lacking.

Compare the Wichita Community Foundation’s $80 million in assets to $545 million with Des Moines’ foundation and $1 billion with Omaha’s.

Wichita isn’t reinvesting in itself like other cities. Is it not part of our DNA?

A coalition of the city’s public and private leaders should begin the process. Unlike Project Wichita, ordinary residents aren’t the focus yet — except at the voting booth. Beginning to find solutions otherwise starts at the top.

Wichita can move along at its present speed and be content. Or its leaders can think beyond the norms of the past, come together and take Chung’s conclusions as a challenge to be a city that seeks to match its renewed spirit with a vision of economic growth and vitality.

We should not be a city that settles.