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Wichita Chamber of Commerce President John Rolfe on priorities, vaccine mandates and Riverfront master plan

Hugo Phan

The new Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce president faces an old problem: finding workers.

The new president and CEO of the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce is no stranger to Wichita.

John Rolfe is a graduate of Southeast High and Wichita State University. And he worked for more than a decade as the head of Go Wichita, the city’s tourism agency.

He did the same thing in Houston for several years before returning to Wichita.

The chamber represents more than 1,500 businesses, and it recently held its annual meeting to discuss priorities for the coming year.

Rolfe talked with Tom Shine and The Range about those priorities, the debate over vaccine mandates, what’s next for the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan and what it means to him to be the Chamber’s first black CEO.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Tom Shine: What are the top two or three priorities for the chamber this next year?

John Rolfe: The workforce is critical. And how do we help those companies continue to address those workforce shortages, as well as how do we retain people here in the area, especially our youth and young professionals … How do we continue to keep them here and engaged in this community and be a part of that workforce.

You are the first black president and CEO in the Chamber's history, which stretches back more than 100 years. What does that mean to you?

It means a lot to me, and I'm truly honored to serve in this capacity.

But it also means that, regardless of that ethnicity, there's a large responsibility that comes with this role and this position. And for me, it means a lot to make sure that I'm impactful and can – with the team here – exceed the expectations and be a key part in leading our business community and the resources and helping them grow and thrive in this region.

Retaining or attracting talent, especially young talent, has been an issue for Wichita  for decades now. Why is that such a stubborn problem?

I don't know if there's any one particular point, but I think in a lot of cases sometimes our youth, like anyone, thinks, ‘Oh, it's a small community. I want to go out … and see the world and go to the major cities.’

So I believe part of it is a little bit of that. But sometimes there's just the fact that we don't get them perhaps as engaged as they should or could while they're here and realize the opportunities. And that's what our focus is on: helping them see and get engaged in the community with employers and the opportunities that we have here, as well as the fun life and the quality of life we have here, before they are at a critical point of making the decision do they stay here or go somewhere else outside of this area.

You spent about a decade leading Go Wichita, which is our convention and visitors bureau. Then you went to Houston and did the same thing for several years there. Why did you leave Wichita? And then why did you come back to Wichita?

It was a very difficult decision for me to make to leave Wichita because it was home for me. I love Wichita dearly, and it's been a great, great city. But I left there for the opportunity to go to the Houston convention and visitors bureau, where I was serving in a number two role as chief operating officer, and the opportunity to be a part of the fourth-largest city in America and the experience there in a major market.

I came back because I love this place so much. And to come back to an opportunity that I felt would be a fit for me and that I would enjoy doing and that I could also make an impact here in this city and continue to be a part of what I consider a major, growing area.

The chamber sent out a letter … asking the state's congressional delegation to push back against federal vaccine mandates. The letter also opposed efforts by the State Legislature to prohibit businesses from imposing their own mandates. What are you hearing from your members on the vaccine mandate issue?

Our positions have been focused solely on what our members have wanted, and that is for it to be a policy that it is a company's decision to best address that particular issue. And so for us, our position has been that of working with the companies and hopefully getting legislation that allows those companies to make that decision.

The chamber, through its young professional group W, was a supporter of the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan. That plan is stalled because of the pandemic. What's its future?

I believe it's very important to this community that we continue to have a great … pride in place, which is one of our focuses here at the chamber, to help make sure not only visitors, but certainly our residents, enjoy a great quality of life. And I believe that the Riverfront Legacy Master Plan is a key part of that.  

If I'm a business owner and I'm thinking of relocating, maybe coming to Wichita, what's the first thing you would tell me about Wichita?

There's a couple of things I would highlight. One is it's a great quality of life and a place to be. And I say that because it's important that when people are recruiting people, that they have employees who want to live here, can afford to live here and want to be in a place where they can have that great quality of life. And so … I would say it's going to be important to those companies that are looking at Wichita.

The other piece of that is the cost of doing business. We are very good at being an affordable place … in terms of the cost of business.

The Wichita economy really took a hit from the Boeing 737-Max problems and then the pandemic. It seems to be … moving in a positive direction. What's your sense of where our economy will go in the next two or three years?

So all signs are leading to certainly … growth opportunities here in the area. And so over the next two to three years, we're anticipating and hoping and expecting that we'll continue to grow. And we're certainly working with several of our key partners and stakeholders and our elected officials and city governments to ensure that we can create that climate that would allow not only for our existing companies here, which are so important to us, to grow and thrive, but also … other companies to come (that) want to come here and be a part of this community and help us grow.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.