September Changemaker is Topeka, Kansas //
This month’s Changemaker is Topeka, Kansas! The city has recently had major revitalization in its downtown and is one of our newest City Learning Clusters. CEOs for Cities interviewed city three leaders in Topeka to learn more about the work they are doing. Topeka, KS is on the rise and see why!
Why CEOS for Cities?
Topeka recently formed a City Learning Cluster with CEOs for Cities. Can you talk about why you decided to join? Are there any new projects the Topeka Cluster is working on?
CS: Historically, what our city has done through the Chamber is go to other similar sized cities to see the work they are doing. We went to Des Moines, Iowa last year and learned a great deal. We also learned about CEOs for Cities and realized we have a core group of community leaders your own definition of “CEOs” perfectly. We have people who want to be involved in the process; to lead the way in building a brighter future here. Your organization is a great way to harness their energy and work with community leaders to continue to build our city.
Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce:
Curtis, in your role you work with different levels of government. What is the most important issue to the business community in Topeka?
CS: Overall, the issues are continued economic growth, workforce development, and opportunity. From a strictly legislative standpoint, we are focused on trying to make sure government functions well and is conducive to business growth. There are a lot of issues that fall under that, but mainly what our members are looking for is solid, streamlined, effective government that pays attention to issues like highways, excellent schools, workforce, health care etc. These are the sorts of topics that, if they are addressed appropriately, the table is set for business to grow here.
As you represent a large business community in your city, how do you make sure all voices are heard?
CS: We have a robust legislative affairs committee that analyzes issues and presents them to our Board of Directors. We have also formed a small business council that pays special attention to issues relevant to starting a business. Between these two bodies, we feel we have a pretty good pulse on our members and what the business community is looking for. That’s what we leverage to express our voice in the Statehouse.
Economic Development + Opportunity:
Economic development and strategic planning can present many opportunities and challenges, especially in cities. Topeka just developed a plan called Momentum 2022. Can you talk a little about it?
KB: The process started in 2016 when we began to have conversations about what Topeka’s next economic development plan should look like. What we heard from the community was that we needed to look at economic development as more than just business growth; we needed to also focus on increasing quality of life and quality of place. Using this feedback from the community, the Steering Committee developed a more holistic economic development strategy, which came to be known as Momentum 2022. There are five core components of the Momentum 2022 strategy:
- Develop Homegrown Talent
- Create Vibrant and Attractive Places
- Grow a Diverse Economy
- Promote a Positive Image
- Collaborate for a Strong Community
What strategies has Topeka used to attract businesses to the city AND attract new residents?
CS: Traditionally, our economic developers have used an array of tools to attract employers in several target industries, including excellent marketing and negotiated incentives. That work continues but our current strategy entails a new focus on quality of life and quality of place as economic development tools, too. The core initiative from which we are driving this element of our strategy is the revitalization of our downtown. If we deliver this to our city as an exciting vibrant place, that will encourage new residents to come here to work, play, and raise their families. Other initiatives we have in place also flow from this core initiative.
In your opinion, what strategies can other cities use to put together an inclusive economic development plan?
KB: One key driver of Topeka’s success is the revitalization of downtown. This is key, because it has sparked an interest in Topeka residents. One of Topeka’s challenges, historically, has been a persistent low morale. When we were able to feature a tangible change, however, our residents began to have more passion for their community. I don’t mean to suggest that downtowns are the key to every development plan, but rather that cities should focus their initial efforts in one aspect or area where residents can see progress, and subsequently be motivated to work toward continued improvement.
How important is marketing to a city?
MS: This is crucial! One thing we think about a lot is even though everything is really technology based, it’s still about word of mouth. People still build an understanding of a place based on what the people they know are saying about it. It’s really important to understand how Topekans are talking about Topeka. They are starting to change the way they talk about the city because they now have a visual of our downtown. When new residents come, we want to make it known that there is more here than just what has been talked about. The more access people have to seeing a city, the more people in other communities will start to believe in it too. It is translatable to any community; when people who are supposed to be the biggest supporters aren’t doing that, other people can see that. You don’t have to spend money on really big campaigns, it’s more about trying to change the perception.
How do you market Topeka’s brand?
MS: For marketing, we do spend money on advertising or boosting Facebook or Twitter posts. But it’s about sharing the things you can do in our city compared to a different city. A lot of cities see advertising that’s similar, but we know we have to show what makes us unique and focus on what we do that no other city in Kansas does. Depending on the audience, we present different things to market Topeka.
What are some ways cities can strengthen their marketing and brand strategies and efforts?
MS: The greatest thing is to understand what the people who live in the city think about the city. We want to know what Topekans think. When we did visitor surveys, we found that people don’t think about Topeka unless they’re close. Someone who lives 2 hours away from the city and doesn’t have family here doesn’t really even have a perception of Topeka. Now there is an opportunity to communicate what’s happening and make others aware.
Opportunities for Topeka
KB: Because right now, there is a lot of blank slate and a lot of opportunity. There are opportunities for businesses, for investors, and there are a lot of opportunities for quality of place and quality of life developments. If you come into the community right now, you become a part of the community, and you can become a part of change.
CS: I heard a young professional leader talking to some college graduates about the fact that they may be tempted to move to a bigger metropolitan area. But if they do that, they will be stepping onto a boat that is already built. But, if they come to Topeka, they will help build the boat.
MS: I am a part of that young professionals group and the most exciting thing for our new members is that it’s a cause you can be part of in terms of, “How do you want to make Topeka the city you want to be a part of?” You can do something here, you just need to get motivated and you can start helping make the change.
In your opinion, what are the top 3 opportunities facing your city today?
CS: Because of the inclusive nature of the economic development process and other initiatives, we are really reaching out to all members of the community. We are on the cusp of a really profound opportunity to bring together our community across a variety of different types of lines: socioeconomic, racial and ethnic, generational. We are really at a moment where the tent is big and everyone who wants to help build the future is welcome to come in.
KB: There is a huge opportunity for young people. Young talent can just come into the community and immediately be a part of growth and change. Our community is open and accepting of individuals who want to come and share their talents and ideas, are motivated to get things done, and who can help our city grow.
MS: There is a lot of growth in public/private partnerships in Topeka. There are really committed people in the private sector who are willing to create opportunities and seize opportunity when they see it. This makes a huge difference.
What inspires you the most?
KB: “What inspires me the most is my family and the ability to do things in Topeka with my family. Visit Topeka is known in the community for throwing awesome festivals and I love to attend them with my kids! This is also a great opportunity for everyone to see what’s going on in our newly revitalized downtown area.
CS: Someday, being able to talk to my grandkids and say, “Look at all of this. I was there, I helped.”
MS: My son is in kindergarten and what inspires me the most is that I want him to be a part of a generation of people who never say a bad thing about Topeka. I want his cohort to maintain that. If they do, the future is brighter than any of us have imagined.
Advice for the Next Generation:
What is your advice for the next generation of city change makers?
CS: Roll up your selves, get out there and be apart of this.
KB: Within the Momentum 2022 strategy, there is a line of caution that states that we cannot allow talking to impede doing. While there is a time and a place for venting frustrations and brainstorming solutions, it’s important to not let these things consume all of your time. You have to stay focused, stay on track, and get things done because “doing” is the most important thing. “Doing” is really the only thing that counts.