Spirit expands in Wichita

It’s good news that Spirit AeroSystems is expanding in Wichita. Let’s look at the cost.

While it is good news that Spirit AeroSystems is expanding its Wichita operations, it is not without cost to several governmental agencies. Here’s a summary of what is publicly available so far.

First, a new “entity” will be formed in order to facilitate the construction and ownership of a new building on the Spirit campus. 1

This entity will be funded with $7 million in cash from Sedgwick County and $3 million cash from the City of Wichita. Further, the city will forgive Spirit’s debt of $3.5 million associated with a water project. 2

Second, through the mechanism of Industrial Revenue Bonds,3 Spirit receives a property tax exemption of one hundred percent for five years, with renewal for another five years if goals are met. Despite the use of the term “bond,” no governmental entity is lending money to Spirit, and no one except Spirit is liable for bond repayment.

Third: The bonds confer another benefit to Spirit: According to city documents, “IRBs will, pursuant to STATE law, provide for a sales tax exemption on materials and labor subject to sales tax necessary to construct and equip FACILITY.” 4 City documents give no dollar amount is given for the sales tax exemption. But in the analysis conducted by Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University these figures are used for the amount of sales tax exemption: City of Wichita: $279,445. Sedgwick County: $137,354. State of Kansas: $5,370,270. Total: $5,787,069. 5

Fourth, this project will undoubtedly qualify for PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. This is a State of Kansas program that allows companies to keep the state income taxes their employees pay through paycheck withholding, less a small fee. 6 It isn’t possible to know in advance how much PEAK benefit the company will receive, because the individual circumstances of each employee determine the income tax withheld. The following calculation, however, gives an indication of the magnitude of the amount of PEAK benefits Spirit can expect:

$56,000 annual salary / 26 pay periods = $2,154 per bi-weekly pay period. For a married worker with two children, withholding tables show $55 to be withheld each pay period, or $55 * 26 = $1,430 per year. For 1,000 employees, the PEAK benefit is $1,430,000 per year. 7

There may be other programs that this project qualifies for.

Are these incentives necessary?

Taxpayers might be wondering if these incentives are necessary for Spirit to be able to expand its operations, and for it to select Wichita as the site. Spirit says it has received generous offers from other locations. If so, Spirit could do itself a favor by revealing these offers. So too, could other Wichita companies that have claimed intense courtship by other cities. But the economic development industry operates in darkness.

One thing that would also increase the credibility of economic development efforts is for Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell (and others) to stop making claims of “no more cash incentives.” The city explicitly offers cash in this proposal. The city also offers to cancel a debt, which is just like cash. Forgiveness of future taxes is as good as cash, too.

For years we’ve been told that Wichita needs to diversify its economy, meaning that it relies too heavily on the aircraft industry. This expansion by Spirit will undoubtedly heighten that concentration. We should not turn down this expansion of our local economy. But the incentives that are offered have a cost, and that cost is paid — partly — by other business firms in other industries that are trying to grow in Wichita.

Many will undoubtedly cheer the Spirit announcement as an economic development win on a large scale. It will add many jobs. But the Wichita-area economy is so far behind it will take much more growth than this to catch up with the rest of the nation. In fact, the Wichita-area economy shrank last year. 8 And while many cheer our low unemployment rate, sole reliance on that number hides a shrinking labor force. 9

Also, let’s be appropriately humble when boasting about this expansion. A region’s largest employer deciding to expand in the same city: This is the minimum level of competence we ought to expect from our economic development machinery.

Further, economists caution us to look beyond any single project, no matter how large, and consider the entirety of the local economy. As economist Art Hall has noted, large-employer businesses have no measurable net economic effect on local economies when properly measured. “The primary finding is that the location of a large firm has no measurable net economic effect on local economies when the entire dynamic of location effects is taken into account. Thus, the siting of large firms that are the target of aggressive recruitment efforts fails to create positive private sector gains and likely does not generate significant public revenue gains either.” 10

That’s assuming that the incentives even work as advertised in the first place. Alan Peters and Peter Fisher, in their paper titled The Failures of Economic Development Incentives published in Journal of the American Planning Association, wrote on the effects of incentives. A few quotes from the study, with emphasis added:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.


  1. “The CITY, COUNTY and COMPANY would each take action to establish a new legal entity separate and apart from the CITY, COUNTY and COMPANY for development of the PROJECT (the “ENTITY”) which will take such form as the PARTIES may approve.” Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.A. Contained within agenda packet for Wichita City Council meeting for December 13, 2017.
  2. “The COUNTY participation of $7 million US is anticipated to be available cash; the CITY participation would consist of cash in the amount of $3 million US, forgiveness of $3.5 million US in future COMPANY payments associated with the CAPITAL COMPONENT and an agreement to make additional capital improvements relating to the WATER AGREEMENT in an approximate cost of $1 million US.” Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.B
  3. Weeks, Bob. Industrial revenue bonds in Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/industrial-revenue-bonds-kansas/.
  4. Memorandum of Understanding for Project Eclipse, Section I.3.E
  5. Project Eclipse – ROI calcs plus author’s calculation. Available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uGaxTgrctYpBjkG7PR6bP81SxgFjpzjo/.
  6. Weeks, Bob. PEAK, or Promoting Employment Across Kansas. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/kansas-government/peak-promoting-employment-across-kansas/.
  7. Kansas Department of Revenue Withholding tables. Available at https://www.ksrevenue.org/pdf/whtables2017.pdf.
  8. Weeks, Bob. Wichita economy shrinks. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/economics/wichita-economy-shrinks/.
  9. “It is possible that the unemployment rate falls while the number of people employed falls or rises slowly. This is the general trend in Wichita for the past seven years or so.” Weeks, Bob. Wichita employment up. Available at https://wichitaliberty.org/wichita-government/wichita-employment-up/.
  10. William F. Fox and Matthew N. Murray, “Do Economic Effects Justify the Use of Fiscal Incentives?” Southern Economic Journal, Vol. 71, No. 1, 2004, p. 79. A

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