While the Wichita-area economy has slowed dramatically this year, the pace of economic development efforts has not.
Andrew Nave is the executive vice president of economic development for the Greater Wichita Partnership, which is in charge of economic development efforts locally.
Despite the challenges of conducting any type business during a pandemic, Nave says officials continue to meet with businesses interested in the Wichita area at a much higher rate than expected. And the partnership has even convinced some to move here, like AgEagle Aerial Systems, which manufactures drones.
Nave talked with Tom Shine and The Range about Wichita’s economic development strengths, the continuing promise of aerospace and the local bid for the headquarters of the U.S. Space Command.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Wichita’s high unemployment rate
Andrew Nave: It's extremely trying times in our economy, but in a unique way, having an abundant labor force – a ready-to-go, available labor force – can be in some instances an advantage. And we've actually seen that. Our team is communicating regularly to prospective companies all across the country, and even in some instances across the world about the availability of our workforce.
On Wichita’s greatest strength
I would tell you what we lead with is our workforce. I mean, the number one cost, the number one expense to any business — irrespective of industry — is going to be your labor. And so that's the story that we tell; we really park around kind of our labor force story. And we're convinced that we can tell that labor story better than the next community. Then we stand a really good chance.
The opportunities that aviation and aerospace hold
We are known for aerospace and the aviation sector. And we will always be; that is our core industry. It is probably one of the few globally competitive industries that folks around the world know about Wichita.
So that's always going to be our heritage and our strength, but aerospace is very broad. So you have rotorcraft, defense, UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles), UAS (unmanned aircraft systems), space; there's a lot of verticals within aerospace that we can help pivot our workforce to for new employment opportunities.
Working to grow existing companies
I would say initially in the spring, when COVID first kind of impacted all of us, that was our primary focus.
So we shifted our focus dramatically to how do we help retain our existing companies and the employment base that they had. So we made hundreds of calls to local businesses about, 'Do you have the PPE, the personal protective equipment, that you need to operate safely? Do you know about the payroll protection program or many of the other stimulus tools and programs that were out there?' We cast a net far and wide to make sure that our businesses knew about as many of the resources that were available to them.
How to get Wichita noticed by growing companies
I came from the Kansas City area, a much larger community (that) dealt with the same dynamic of trying to get the attention of growing, innovative companies, particularly those kind on the proverbial "Coasts." There is that disconnect to much of what happens in the middle of America.
So, no, I absolutely would agree that we're working harder to get the attention of more companies. And I don't know that it's anything indicative of Wichita as much as it is there's a lot of great places in America. How do we separate ourselves even more from some of those others for some of those opportunities?
There is stiff competition. There's more than 26 states, but not all those states and not all those places can say they're the Air Capital of the World.
We’re well known in the commercial aviation segment, and then business aviation and general aviation, we're well known as well. But we've got assets that might surprise people in space. An example ... Wichita State University and NIAR (National Institute for Aviation Research) have done a phenomenal amount of research within space, both private sector and in the government, even with NASA.
One business advantage of the pandemic
It's a little bit easier to get people on the phone because so many of us are working remote or people are working from their homes. We're all right there by the phone. We maybe don't have as many meetings to go to, or they're certainly not that out of town work travel as much for many folks. So we've actually seen an uptick in being able to get somebody on a phone call and have a conversation with them when maybe a year or two ago that wasn't the case.