Jeff Fluhr likes to watch what other cities have done to grow faster than Wichita has grown.
Take Oklahoma City. And Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, in Iowa. Not many years ago, they were much like us; Des Moines has 206,000 people as compared to our roughly 386,000. They are like us in size, cultural preferences and in challenges. They don’t have sandy ocean beaches any more than we do, for example, so they need to give people other reasons to move there.
And people have moved there. Here, not so much.
With nearly any other important measure, Des Moines outperforms us. So do Cedar Rapids and Oklahoma City. Eleven thousand, one hundred and forty-eight people migrated out of Wichita between 2010 and 2014, for example, according to U.S. Census numbers. Des Moines grew by 16,559.
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Why? How did these other places grow?
We’re either at home or out having fun only 15 minutes after we walk out the office door.
Jeff Fluhr, Downtown Development Corporation
Fluhr is president of the Greater Wichita Partnership and the Downtown Development Corporation, so his job is to grow the city.
He’s a coach and mentor for Wichita’s development. One example: While promoting Wichita’s virtues, he’s pointing out that analysts are saying now that people in big cities are suffering serious fatigue from crowding. People are so sick of traffic and crowding that they, and entire companies, are tempted these days to move to a smaller place. Such as Wichita. Wichita is affordable and clean. And only 15 minutes after we walk out the office door, we’re either at home or out having fun.
Des Moines sees that, too, so it is also marketing to those fatigued people.
And Des Moines is doing more.
The numbers that show how Des Moines and other places are showing Wichita up can look disappointing – until you hear Fluhr explain Wichita’s plans, already in progress, for catching up.
But let’s start with the disappointing numbers and get it over with.
About 29 percent of Wichita residents have bachelor’s degrees. In Des Moines, it’s 35 percent.
Unemployment: Wichita, 5.7 percent; Des Moines, 3.2 percent.
Age 25-34 population growth in last decades: Wichita, 9 percent; Des Moines, 13 percent.
Des Moines achieved much of this in just the past five years.
Other cities outpace us, Cedar Rapids and Oklahoma City included, on all these numbers and more.
But those other places are not better than us, Fluhr says. They’re just ahead of us for now – and he says we’re positioned now to catch up.
So how did Des Moines do it?
“You’ve got to have a vision going in about who you are and what you want to do,” said Angela Connolly, a Polk County (Iowa) supervisor with an extensive resume in leading economic development. “You’ve got to have a regional vision and strategy where everybody works together; we went out to a 50-mile radius.’
▪ Connolly and other Des Moines leaders borrowed good ideas from other cities, including Wichita. Jay Byers, the chief executive officer of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, loves Wichita and has learned from it, including during visits to a lawyer brother who works at Foulston Siefkin.
Des Moines appropriated from Wichita the ideas behind Wichita’s Visioneering effort from several years ago, Byers said. Des Moines does its own version now.
▪ In a politically and culturally conservative state, Des Moines created a dynamic around women in management.
Seventy percent of the managerial workforce in Des Moines is female, according to Harvard-trained economic analyst James Chung.
“We’ve got a lot of finance companies in Des Moines; Wells Fargo alone has 50,000 employees,” Byers said. “Women in management there have long been a key to their success.”
Des Moines set out deliberately to attract more women, especially Iowa natives who’d moved away and might come back if the old hometown looked promising. When they came back, as many did recently, they brought their husbands and families with them. And that boosted the Des Moines economy.
▪ But “the woman thing,” as Connolly called it with a little laugh, was not the smartest thing Des Moines did.
Connolly and Byers help lead several significant community groups bent on growing Des Moines.
“You have to get somebody who is a leader, bring people to the table who are decision makers and not somebody’s alternate,” Connolly said. “When we started this latest push five years ago, we had the top leaders, the CEOs of all the big companies with us at the table, making a lot of plans.”
Byers said one other thing was key: getting leaders around the table from different backgrounds, different political persuasions and who have differing theories about how markets interact with governments.
“They all decided, early on, that they were going to leave political partisanship out of it,” Byers said.
“And they did.”
▪ Listen. “Ask your constituents what they think we need,” Connolly said.
Des Moines business leaders invested heavily, including to beautify downtown. Flower pots color the streets everywhere and line the road all the way from the airport to downtown, paid for mostly with private dollars raised by businesses who insisted that flowers would add class to the place.
“People loved it,” Byers said.
“And so we’ve kept 80,000 in the core, while our suburbs are growing at an unbelievable rate,” Connolly said. “That happened together because early on we adopted a regional plan.”
OK, enough of Des Moines’ success. Hurray for Des Moines.
Fluhr says Wichita is now poised to catch up and is doing many of the same things Des Moines did.
Des Moines built relationships outside of town with nearby counties and cities. Fluhr and other leaders here have done that in a 10-county group working under the name of BREG: Blueprint for Regional Economic Growth.
On all counts, Fluhr said, Wichita is doing most of the same things Byers described, and is starting to see the same payoffs.
Just along Douglas, he said, $300 million has been invested in development since 2010.
Fluhr was a key player with others last year in persuading Cargill not only to stay here and move to Douglas but to develop plans that will dovetail nicely with plans Fluhr and others have mapped out for beautifying Old Town enough to make it more of a visitor magnet.
Keeping Cargill was a huge psychological win for Wichita, Fluhr said. “It sent the message that not all companies leave us,” he said. “It made all of us feel better about ourselves.”
Wichita, like Des Moines, is investing in flower pots and transit shelters for Douglas and other downtown streets. Cindy Carnahan, a longtime Wichita Realtor, is planning all sorts of flower pots for downtown Wichita.
Beyond downtown, developers and the community are creating a new skyline: the Waterfront in east Wichita, new buildings at Wichita State University’s Innovation Campus
That first, key ingredient Connolly described in Des Moines – getting the top leaders at the table, rather than surrogates – happened here, too, and without much pushing, Fluhr said.
“On our board, we’ve got all the chief CEOs with us,” he said. “John Bardo (WSU president) is there. Charley Chandler and Aaron Bastian (Intrust and Fidelity banks) are always there.” He named more. They take the lead, he said.