Topeka Market Study May Initiate New Role For JEDO

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TOPEKA CITY HALL (WIBW) -- An incentives package for a pet food manufacturer, and details of a new marketing study on Topeka highlighted Wednesday night's JEDO (Joint Economic Development Organization) session, inside the Topeka City Council chambers.

The incentives for Big Heart Pet Brands total just under $200,000, but will spark expansion of their Topeka plant at 2200 NW Brickyard Road. The Delaware Corporation's $42.3 million capital investment will keep 20 jobs here (and earn them $85,000 for capital improvements, by keeping the jobs in Topeka.)

There is also a promise of 8 new positions during the expansion. Big Heart would reap $3,000 for each new job, up to a dozen positions at the factory.

The highlight of the night was the long-awaited Topeka Market Study from Avalanche Consulting of Austin, Texas. Among its findings:

Households and Median incomes in Topeka are still rising.
Poverty is also rising among the chronically unemployed in Topeka.
The targeted hot spots in Job Forecast growth are in the financial sector, as well as food manufacturing, and logistics and systems technology.

Employers surveyed in the study say Topeka's "education infrastructure" is superb; with outstanding help from Washburn and Washburn Tech in training and helping them find skilled workers to fill the positions they bring to the Capitol City.

But there are challenges, including results that while Topeka's population has remained steady, Topeka is losing young professionals to other cities. Topeka is battling a very tight supply of available workers, and has problems in retaining good talent. And Avalanche reported back to the JEDO board members, there is a perception Topeka has fewer cultural amenities for a city its size, to provide a better quality of life for the young professionals Topeka wants to keep.

Board members include 7 City Council members and the 3 County Commissioners, who were in agreement that redevelopment of Downtown Topeka will be a big step in changing that perception.

Broader questions arose on JEDO's role in working with Go Topeka on what to do next.

Topeka Council member Richard Harmon proposed putting out feelers for a consultant of its own, getting some public input from Topekans, and talking over some new ideas of how both operations work together. And if they're not getting the job done.

"We need to look at the operations of Go Topeka, does it function properly? Is the relationship between it and the Chamber and JEDO appropriate, then we need to look at marketing strategies to see if there's something else we need to be doing.. we need to look at JEDO itself, re-formulate JEDO and its relationship to Go Topeka.."

Bob Archer had a personal reaction to one challenge: "we have two children.. one of them left town, and one of them stayed here.. we want both our kids to be in Topeka."

Harmon was concerned that with millions spent to lure the large Target and Home Depot distribution centers here, job creation from distribution centers ranks near the lowest among Topeka's economic development sparks.

The next two months may see activity on what new money will be spent to examine the roles of the two agencies, and how to deal with Topeka's eco devo challenges.