Opinion Columns & Blogs

Wichita can avoid becoming Detroit

The Eagle published an article (Feb. 14 Business) by its well-respected aviation and business reporter, Molly McMillin, that asked a question Wichita leaders and citizens have been asking for some time: What can we do to prevent Wichita from falling into the hole that is Detroit?

A simple answer is to continue throwing money and other goodies to keep the aviation companies. A better answer is that we need to get rid of the notion that our elected officials and others have so much forethought to know what will or won't be successful in 20 or 50 years. They don't.

Detroit became a modern tragedy not just because of global competition, poor products or poor management at the Big Three. Other sectors of the Michigan economy weren't there to pick up the slack when the auto industry foundered. Michigan put too much focus on the auto industry, to the detriment of the overall business and economic climate.

While state and local government poured incentives into the Big Three's trough, the marginal costs of doing business for everyone else crept up.

It's the classic example of the seen versus the unseen. We see the new factory Pontiac builds. We don't see the businesses that reduce their size, close or just move. The irony is that we still will see the Pontiac factory after it is closed and boarded up.

For each tax dollar given to the auto industry, one is taken away from entrepreneurs trying to create the next GM, Ford, Google or Apple. This may not be too bad the first time or the second time. But over years and decades, the results can be significant. The "next big thing" will be created in a state with a better tax and regulatory climate.

Cessna Aircraft, Spirit AeroSystems, Boeing, Bombardier Learjet and Hawker Beechcraft are all great companies that produce great products known throughout the world. Kansans and Wichitans are rightly proud.

Who can predict with any certainty that they'll be in Wichita or even in business in 10 or 30 years? I hope so, and I think they will, but I am not willing to bet Wichita's future on it.

We shouldn't give state or locally funded goodies to other individual companies, either.

Lower the tax rates for everyone. After all, the tax breaks and other prizes handed out are recognition that the cost of doing business in a particular area is too high.

The Kansas Division of Legislative Post Audit last year reported that we spent billions of dollars in "economic development" with nothing to show for it. Our lawmakers aren't very good at picking winners and losers.

When The Eagle asked Wichita's aircraft leaders about Detroit, there was a golden opportunity to ask other business leaders in Kansas and Wichita that same question.

It is just as likely, and maybe more so, that they will determine if Wichita goes the way of Detroit — or does not.