Community Assessment and Regional Scorecards Information Released
Tri-chairs for the steering committee are Mayor Larry Wolgast, Shawnee County Commission Chair Shelly Buhler and Keith Warta, president of Bartlett & West. Partnering organizations for the study include GO Topeka, Heartland Visioning, Topeka Community Foundation, Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library and United Way of Greater Topeka. In August, Market Street, an economic development company that works with cities across the country, administered a survey completed by 2,295 residents, workers and business leaders. The information has been woven into six key stories that present a narrative discussion of top issues facing Topeka-Shawnee County: 1) A Critical Need to Improve Community Pride; 2) Threats to a Strong Workforce Go Beyond Population Growth; 3) Quality of Place Enhancements Are Needed to Change Outlooks; 4) Homegrown Talent: A Need to Connect the Local and Regional Talent Pipeline; 5) Enhancing Economic Opportunities Through Existing Strengths; and 6) Prosperity and Well-Being Lag Behind.
Mac Holiday, president, chief executive officer and founder of Market Street, said, “As the nation recovers from The Great Recession, it is vital that communities and regions rethink their community and economic development strategy. There have been fundamental changes in the structure of our economy. Topeka-Shawnee County is in an excellent position to take advantage of new and different opportunities, but it will take hard work and a strong community unity. This work is a ‘team sport.’”
Market Street has worked with numerous communities across the country to enhance reputation and economic vitality, including Austin, Texas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Des Moines, Iowa. Topeka Metropolitan Statistical Area data was compared against nine regions with which it shares attributes and/or competes for jobs and workers: Des Moines, Iowa; Fort Smith, Arkansas; Jefferson City, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Little Rock, Arkansas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Springfield, Illinois; Springfield, Missouri; and Wichita, Kansas.
During the next few months, the steering committee will draft an action plan with implementation to begin in April 2017.
Here are key findings in each category:
With regard to community pride, the report revealed that 45 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they were “not likely” or only “somewhat likely” to remain in the area. When asked whether their children would remain in the community, just 10.4 percent of respondents said this was “very likely” compared to 56.1 percent who said it was “not likely.” Issues that affect these perceptions include losing residents to Lawrence and Kansas City and quality of place, including social offerings and the community’s physical appearance. Recent efforts underway to enhance downtown and the riverfront, as well as other sectors of the community, have “already begun to have a positive influence on internal perceptions of the community,” according to the report.
Wolgast said, “The process of rebuilding community pride is already underway and gaining momentum. The announcements we’ve made this year and the enhancements that are now evident downtown and in the NOTO Arts District are creating welcoming gathering spaces that complement first-class events.”
Topeka-Shawnee County is gaining residents from smaller nearby communities and rural areas while losing residents at an even greater rate to other large and/or highly competitive metro areas. Stakeholders indicated that the area’s proximity to Kansas City and Lawrence is both a “blessing and a curse.” Additionally, nearly 40 percent of the primary jobs in Topeka-Shawnee County that pay at least $40,000 per year are held by individuals who live outside of Topeka-Shawnee County. Educational attainment rates among individuals 25 to 44 are rising faster in the state and the nation than they are in Topeka-Shawnee County
Buhler said the report’s key takeaways in this area focus on cultivating homegrown talent to “enhance a competitive workforce and drive prosperity” now and in the future by retaining those individuals who already have a connection to the community.
“In the past three years, Washburn Institute of Technology has made incredible inroads by offering new programs and establishing partnerships with area companies like BNSF and Mars to enhance training availability,” said Buhler. “A proposed campus on the east side of Topeka could help accelerate the impact. Washburn University, Fast Forward and other organizations are putting things in place to help showcase the community’s attributes for people of all ages.”
Quality of Place
While Topeka-Shawnee County receives high marks for affordable housing and easy commutes, respondents shared concerns about a lack of social offerings and walkable mixed-use districts.
“Quality of place is a key factor in our ability to recruit top engineers and other employees,” said Warta. “We have first-rate recreational amenities, great schools and other excellent attributes, but survey respondents across all age groups indicated a need to invest in our city’s aesthetics, infrastructure and entertainment opportunities especially.”
The report noted that respondents indicated that many “components of a comprehensive cradle-to-careers pipeline are in place, and significant improvements could be derived” from alignment and collaboration. Other needs that emerged from the data and input include maintaining and expanding childhood education programs, boosting achievement in Topeka Public Schools, reviving the M-Tech program at Washburn Institute of Technology, expanding computer and IT programs and strengthening connections in the region.
Gina Millsap, chief executive officer of the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, said collaborations like the proposed Dolly Parton Imagination Library will have a direct impact on economic development for years to come. Through the program, for which fundraising is already underway to reach a first-tier goal of $250,000, any child in Shawnee County age 0 to 5 can receive a book in the mail each month through a collaboration between the library and the United Way of Greater Topeka.
“Education and economic development are inseparable,” said Millsap. “Children who are successful at early ages are more likely to complete high school and pursue vocational training and college educations. In turn, educated people are more likely to vote, volunteer, donate to causes and engage in cultural offerings.”
While many stakeholders said they viewed Topeka-Shawnee County as a blue collar town that manufactures and moves goods, these sectors are less concentrated locally than they are in the national economy. In actuality, the community’s key economic drivers are government, health care and various other corporate and service-based sectors, primarily finance and insurance.
GO Topeka, the community’s economic development provider, focuses its activities around four main targets: advanced systems technology, food manufacturing, logistics and distribution and professional and financial services. Between 2005 and 2015, they combined to add more than 3,300 jobs.
The county’s advantageous geographic location, interstate access, affordable real estate and other qualities have also made it a prime location for starting and expanding food manufacturing operations, according to the report.
Scott Griffith, chair of the GO Topeka board, said, “Topeka-Shawnee County has many strengths that make it a popular, profitable section of the country in which to do business. We have attracted top performing companies or helped them expand in all of these sectors in recent years, and more plans are in the pipeline.”
Although Topeka boasts many entrepreneurial startups—from global companies like Payless ShoeSource and Hill’s to national companies like Security Benefit, se2 and Advisors Excel—the report indicated there is room for improvement. Just 3.8 percent of the Topeka-Shawnee County workforce is self-employed compared to the national average of 6.5 percent.
GO Topeka’s Entrepreneurial & Minority Business Development, 712 Innovations and Washburn University’s Small Business Development Center all offer programs designed to help entrepreneurs plan and prepare for a greater chance of success.
Although the data reveal that real per capita income has increased, thereby providing residents with more purchasing power, wage growth has not kept pace with inflation. Poverty in Topeka-Shawnee County is down overall but the report said a “frustratingly” high proportion of residents—including more than one in five children—live below the poverty line.
In conclusion, the study said, “It is important to re-emphasize that Topeka-Shawnee County cannot let low morale or negative attitudes stand in the way of progress. In Market Street’s experience, even self-image problems that have been decades in the making can be turned around in a short amount of time with simple, meaningful demonstrations of progress.”