City, county need to work together on economic development

The new Sedgwick County Commission majority has shown a willingness to break commitments and partnerships and go its own way.
The new Sedgwick County Commission majority has shown a willingness to break commitments and partnerships and go its own way.

The governments of Sedgwick County and the city of Wichita, geographically divided only by Central Avenue, diverged last week on economic development. The us-versus-them escalation comes when the local economy needs coordinated, unequivocal leadership.

Worried about a projected budget deficit, the county commissioners recently voted to alter the multiyear agreement that obligates the city and county to each provide $300,000 a year through 2018 to the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. They made the date by which the county could terminate the agreement Sept. 1 rather than June 1 – fueling fears that the county’s next move might be cutting or pulling its support.

Last week the Wichita City Council protested the county’s action and signaled its own solid support for GWEDC by voting 6-1 against changing the cancellation date.

The next day county commissioners, suggesting the City Council had left them no choice, unilaterally ended the county’s agreement with GWEDC. The move came in an off-agenda item, with little opportunity for GWEDC and the business community to argue against it.

Because the county commissioners picked this fight, they will need to deliver on their assurances that their vote to cancel the funding agreement does not end the county’s involvement in either GWEDC or economic development.

Their recent actions speak louder than those words, though, showing the new commission majority’s willingness to break commitments and partnerships and go its own way.

And the latest move comes as a slap not only to the city but the private sector, which provides about $1 million of GWEDC’s annual funding. If it doesn’t represent an existential threat to GWEDC, it makes the county an uncertain partner at best across a range of crucial new efforts to diversify and boost the area economy. Those include the creation of the Greater Wichita Partnership, led by Jeff Fluhr, of which GWEDC is now a part; the implementation of the Wichita-South Central Kansas Regional Export Plan; and the Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth, initiated by Wichita State University as part of its new Innovation Campus.

City Council members noted the poor timing – and that the county expenditure for GWEDC costs the owner of a $100,000 home 79 cents a year.

Reorganizing economic development “starts with everyone working together to move Wichita forward,” said new council member Bryan Frye. “Our future as a community must come together as a regional effort. We need to be focused, competitive and have a very strong voice.”

Meanwhile, after having lost more than 20,000 jobs in the Great Recession, the Wichita metro civilian labor pool of those working and job hunting continues to decline, dropping by 3,000 between April 2014 and April 2015. Last week WSU’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research downgraded its jobs forecast for the area to a weak 0.8 percent increase for the year.

In the coming days, elected officials on both sides of Central need to come together with business leaders to repair the relationship and get both the new economic development strategy and the local economy moving.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman