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Fight Back to Keep Aviation Industry
August 20, 2010
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  • Type “Air Capital of the World” into Google and you still get lots of hits for Wichita, where hundreds of thousands of airplanes have been manufactured over the past 90 years. But it’s getting harder not to worry about Wichita’s ability and will to defend that coveted title.

    Elected officials can’t afford to find themselves surprised by the planemakers’ plans, as they seemed to be last week when Hawker Beechcraft chief executive Bill Boisture confirmed that his company was exploring options including a major move.

    The local executives of Wichita’s major planemakers have been upfront about the siren song of other job-hungry states and nations. In Hawker Beechcraft’s case, the places apparently promising lower labor costs, richer incentives or both include Louisiana and Mississippi.

    Wichita and Kansas must fight back with everything available.

    To that end, Gov. Mark Parkinson’s aggressive countermeasures have stood out in recent days: He met with Boisture last week at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, and Parkinson will help announce an agreement today in Wichita enabling Bombardier Aerospace to expand its operations with a new paint facility, customer delivery center, production flight test center and space for final assembly of the new Learjet 85.

    A larger Bombardier footprint will be an outstanding development for Wichita, especially after so many months in which the only big announcements out of the local plants concerned big layoffs.

    But Parkinson will leave his job in January, and leadership must emanate from Wichita’s City Hall, SedgwickCounty and the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition. The unions must be on the team as well.

    Wichita’s selling points to aviation companies start with its skilled work force and low cost of living but go on and on, including access to Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research and the county’s soon-to-open National Center for Aviation Training. As NIAR executive director John Tomblin told the Sedgwick County Commission this week, the addition of the $50 million NCAT to Wichita’s aviation cluster creates “unique leveraging opportunities.”

    One model remains the city, county and state effort in 2008 in response to Cessna Aircraft’s desire to build its (since-shelved) Citation Columbus in Wichita. But the $40 million in offered cash assistance and tax breaks can’t compare with the $125 million in incentives that Wichita-based Spirit AeroSystems since received to build in tiny Kinston, N.C.

    In Wichita’s case, are leaders doing all they can do? Whatever they do, will it be enough – especially with Mexican labor available for $2.65 an hour?

    Revelations about Hawker Beechcraft’s roving eye shouldn’t mark the beginning of the end for Wichita’s status as “Air Capital of the World.” Rather, it should be the moment when Wichita and Kansas fought back and won.

    – For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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    Date: 2010-08-19