Think Exports Will Save America? Pay Attention to Wichita

Wichita has discovered and nurtured something that other city economies -- and the national economy -- could stand to emulate: a manufacturing and export strategy that is bringing fresh money into the city at a time when the feds are struggling to get money moving.

What's the matter with Kansas? Nothing at all, when it comes to one of the country's most important recovery statistics: making stuff and selling it overseas.

With the US economy struggling to make more than it buys and White House calling to double exports in five years, we could all learn a lesson from Wichita. The flat Kansas city is an outsized powerhouse when it comes to building things other countries want. Out of the top 100 metro areas ranked by share of exports out of gross metro product, Wichita is the runaway winner, with nearly 3 out of 10 city dollars flowing from foreign buyers.

What's Wichita's secret? Look up.

The city has one of the country's most important aviation clusters, a gaggle of high-flying large manufacturers and smaller suppliers that provide the backbone of Wichita's economy and export potential. It's strong ("55 percent of commercial

and general aviation are touched by Wichita," said Bryan Derreberry, CEO of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce), but it's also nimble. After 9/11 slammed the commercial flying business, the cluster shifted to business and corporate clients. When the Great Recession crushed profits for domestic companies, the cluster continued to grow its overseas market.

But what makes Wichita fly? Like so many successful city economies, it's a combination of good fortune and good planning. Thanks perhaps to its flat land, healthy winds and proximity to oil, Wichita has been a national aircraft capital for nearly a century. It got an infusion of Defense investment when, during World War II, the US concentrated its military manufacturing inland, in case there was an attack on either coast. In the last few decades, the city has used tax incentives and local training centers to cultivate a "cluster" of aviation manufacturing in Wichita, including major builders like Boeing, Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft. Not including the government, the top three employers in Wichita are aircraft companies.

With exports and manufacturing policy now on the national stage, metro experts are studying ways for cities to promote and support "clusters," or related firms located near one another and that draw productive advantage from their proximity. According to Joseph Cortright, while it's difficult to deliberately create clusters, cities should support knowledge creation, entrepreneurship, new firm formation, and the availability of capital to support clusters that emerge naturally.

That explains why Wichita State University, founded in 1885, is home to the largest aerospace research and development academic institution in the nation. It explains why the nation's top aviation training center opened last week in Wichita, to help the city maintain its worldwide advantage in the business of building planes. Wichita didn't force airplane manufacturers to come to the city. But they're doing what they can to keep their edge.

When you talk to national experts about the future of "Made in America" and ask whether America can make things anymore, they answer: Of course we can. Now, we can't make the world's most cost-effective toys or textiles. But we are still world-class in sophisticated goods: high precision surgical equipment, high quality pharmaceuticals, and (perhaps above all else) aircraft. Transportation is the largest US export category, and it's a booming business in Wichita.