CHOOSE TOPEKA

“The City of Topeka, Kansas, Wants to Pay You To Live There,” a TIME.com headline reads. “Topeka will pay you as much as $15,000 to move there” writes the Kansas City Star. Topeka has been the subject of national headlines since its December 11 announcement of Choose Topeka, an incentivized talent attraction plan that aims to entice people to work and live in the capital city. The pilot program was crafted by GO Topeka to assist employers with recruitment and retention and received the green light at the December JEDO meeting.

The program pays people up to $15,000 in relocation costs to live and work in our city. To be considered for the talent attraction program, applicants will meet all eligibility requirements which include:

  • move to Topeka for full time employment
  • purchase a home or rent (primary residence only) in Shawnee County within the first year of the move
  • employer participation in matching funds
  • eligible to work in the United States

The maximum benefits are $10,000 for renting and $15,000 for home purchase / rehab. The incentive is financed first by employers with a recommended 50 percent match rebate from GO Topeka and JEDO collectively.

“The idea consists of a partnership between Go Topeka and local businesses that would together offer families up to $15,000 to move to and work in Topeka, along with gift cards to local restaurants and attractions, and discount memberships to things like gyms,” Molly Howey, senior vice president of economic development for GTP told KSNT last July. [Interview]

“We were tasked by our board to create an aggressive, outside the box, talent initiative,” said Barbara Stapleton, vice president of business retention + talent initiatives for GTP, “it’s leading edge.”

With 40 percent of the Topeka workforce who earn $40,000 or more a year residing outside of Shawnee County, coupled with an overall decrease in population inside the city limits, attracting and retaining people to live and work in Topeka has been the elephant on Kansas Ave for quite a number of years.

“We believe so strongly in Topeka,” said Bob Ross, senior vp of marketing + communications for GTP, “that if someone comes and lives here for a year, we feel they will fall in love with our community and choose to build a life here.”

PARTNERSHIP

(drink)

BUT THERE’S A CATCH

The essential component of Choose Topeka is the participation of the employer, who “must notify GO Topeka of their intent to participate for each employee they choose to offer the talent incentive and receive confirmation of acceptance.” The incentive will be funded initially by the employer who will submit for reimbursement, 50 percent match, the subsequent year, “documenting continued residency, employment and payment to the employee.”

This critical requirement surely alters initial program perception, as the proposed paradigm inherently favors companies who currently offer relocation bonuses in their job recruitment packages, potentially entices select mid-sized companies to follow suit and presumably alienates small businesses who might lack capital or capacity and even national or global organizations who might have more stringent hiring practices.

“It’s a test program, so we will learn how employers leverage it,” said Ross. “It is employer led and employer selected. We are merely partnering with our employers to make them more competitive for top talent.”

“One of the biggest challenges that we’ve had in HR over the years is the recruiting, and the retention of talent to Topeka,” expressed Kelly Dugan, Bartlett & West, an HR professional who has worked in Topeka for over 20 years. Dugan is supportive of, better yet excited for, the initiative, stating that for her “it’s not really buying talent, but it’s showing the talent that we are trying to bring to our community or get to stay in our community – that we really have a commitment to this town, to this county.”

It’s clear our community is committed to growth and for Dugan it is initiatives like Choose Topeka that afford employers an opportunity to share with potential hires this commitment and alignment, something especially important when trying to recruit talent for hard-to-fill, specialized jobs.

For David Callanan, Advisors Excel co-founder, these alignment stories are paramount for successful recruitment. “Alignment matters to people,” said Callanan. “What you want to tell those people is an alignment story, and that not only is the business investing in you, but the community is investing in you. This [Topeka] is a growing place. This is a place that is expanding,” continued Callanan, “plus you’re giving HR directors a lot of valuable tools. It’s less about the cash… it’s more about the alignment and being able to bring people to our amazing community, to build legacy.”

Bartlett + West and Advisors Excel have both publicly committed their support of Choose Topeka and their intentions to participate, hoping the program will give them the slight edge to fill current specialized vacancies. Currently, both companies actively recruit outside Shawnee County for talent with salary averages of $40,000 or more. Other companies who have indicated interest in the Choose Topeka pilot program include Evergy, Hills, Security Benefit and Saint Francis Hospital, according to Ross.

On September 11, 2019, AE entered into an economic development incentive agreement with GO Topeka for $1.2 million for the creation and hiring of new full time employment positions over the next five years. A full time employment position must equal at least $52,000 annually in order to qualify for the $5,500 employment incentive, which is prorated over five years and subject to limitations and additional requirements. According to Ross, employers may stack these [Choose Topeka] incentives on their existing relocation packages, as long as this is used to secure Topeka as a destination to work and reside.

AE is one of ten companies listed to receive varied employment incentive funds from GO Topeka in 2020; others include FHLB, Futamura USA, Hills, Industrial Maintenance, Mars, Premier Advisory Group, Reser’s, se2, and Yantra. None of the employment incentive packages require the employee to reside in Topeka, but all are performance based. (Go Topeka 2020 presented budget, reference page 104.)

OPPOSITION

Commissioner Cook was the singular nay vote for Choose Topeka, raising several questions during the discussion portion at the JEDO meeting. One such concern was the impact the program would truly have given the dollars requested, commenting that within his peer group, professionals who might qualify or be in a position to benefit from Choose Topeka, would not be swayed to uproot their life and move, say, 60 miles for that amount of money, noting his wife carpooled to Manhattan from Topeka for work for numerous years, and even if her employer offered her the proposed relocation funds, it would not have been enough to entice her to uproot their entire family and, more importantly, move from their home, Topeka. The mayor commented that one of Topeka’s top surgeon lives in Chicago, traveling by plane for work, and has “no intent to move.” Councilman Lesser spoke differently, noting that Choose Topeka is exciting and the incentive might or could be the deciding factor for some – enabling them to plant roots in Topeka by way of purchasing a home and starting their life.

Councilwoman Hiller believes the program will pair well with new and existing businesses, working together to market the benefits of living and working in Topeka. “To market all parts of Topeka to employees, and not just to those doctors (who otherwise might fly in from Chicago) but that $40,000 wage person that’s going to work in that warehouse and be a mid-level and rising manager – to help them get started here.”

According to Cook, the funding for this proposal comes from a sales tax which affects every Topekan with every purchase we make within Shawnee County. “However, sales tax by its nature is a regressive tax and affects the poor more than those who have financial resources,” Cook told seveneightfive. “For this reason the governing board of JEDO must be sure that the programs we promote are well thought out and will help all citizens of Shawnee County. In one breath JEDO set forth $30,000 toward transportation assistance in getting employees to work and $300,000 in getting people to move to Topeka,” continued Cook. “This disparity in allocation strikes me as an inequitable delivery in economic resources.”

Transportation assistance funds were set aside as part of the approved 2020 GO Topeka budget, which has a budget line for the NETO Ride to Work program and, according to Howey, $40,000 allocated under Talent Incentives, specifically work force barrier support, which will allow for continued conversations regarding SOTO Workforce Route with Topeka Metro’s new leadership, as well as determining the need and the “appetite” of the Metro and partnering businesses to continue. According to Howey, not enough ride-share participants support a full SOTO route at this time.

POPULATION

“We’re fixin’ to be desperate for people,” said Councilman Jensen, “we need to do innovative things…we need to try…I’m in full support of this program…again, it’s leading edge not bleeding edge.” (drink)

“You know, population is everything in communities,” stated Councilman Emerson. “You spend your money where you live…it’s communities that are dying are the ones losing population. It’s not a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of population that’s killing communities.”

From 2010 to 2018 the city of Topeka saw a loss of 800 people, or half of one percent of the population. The county saw a slight increase in population, counteracting the city’s decline, resulting in a flat population growth for Greater Topeka + Shawnee County. For the same time period, population growth for the State of Kansas was a net gain of 9.2 percent. Choose Topeka seeks to address and reverse this population trend.

“This program is being promoted to reverse that trend and increase growth,” said Cook.

“I disagree with this being the solution to population growth. I firmly believe that the reason for population loss is based on crime, poor streets, failing water infrastructure and a perceived inferior education opportunities in Topeka public schools. If we are to initiate a growth in population, let us address these issues first.”

Counter statements could support an argument that JEDO’s $300k investment would not begin to impact such issues addressed by Cook and, according to GO Topeka, the potential ROI for investment in this program is ten fold.

BOILS DOWN TO MARKETING

“Getting the word out to a much broader audience across the nation about how great it is to live here,” said Howey, is just one outcome GO Topeka believes the Choose Topeka program will have. “[And] Really building some collateral and marketing materials around that so that when businesses are looking to recruit new talent, they can capture talent to be part of the community.”

For Hiller the real reward and strength would be if this program is the “start in shifting how all our companies work together – working together to market the benefits of living and working in Topeka.”

It’s really one large marketing campaign, said Matt Pivarnik, president + CEO of GTP. The investment of $300,000 could turn into millions in earned media coverage for Topeka. “The amplification would be massive.”

“Is this a media response that reflects positively on our community,” wonders Cook. “What is the impression we want on our country? Topeka and Shawnee County have so many things to offer we should not have to pay to have people move here. If we want a marketing campaign for Topeka and Shawnee County then let’s invest in promoting the positive parts of our community.”

CHOOSE TOPEKA: UNIQUE, LIKE THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

GO Topeka cited two programs of reference when developing Choose Topeka: Tulsa Remote and Think Vermont. Both programs will pay up to $10,000 for workers to move to their city and work remotely. Tulsa has had astonishing results, ultimately capping applications last year at 10,000. 100 remote workers became Tulsans, adding to their current population of 200,000. Their website states they are seeking 250 remote workers in 2020.

Think Vermont Remote Worker Grant Program approved 56 applications in the first eight months, resulting in a total of 140 new residents, including families. Vermont has one of the highest median ages in the country, at 42.7, and believes this program is but one way to combat their declining workforce population. Vermont announced that beginning next year a new worker incentive program will launch which provides assistance to individuals who move to Vermont to work full-time for in-state employers. This program is much more closely aligned with Choose Topeka.

The State of Alaska developed the Permanent Fund Dividend back in ’76, which essentially pays residents of Alaska to permanently live there. Investment earnings on Alaskan mineral royalties are paid to residents. It is an annual payment, and one the state feels is an investment in their current population as well as future generations, in hopes that they stay in Alaska (despite the exorbitantly high cost of living). Since 1988 residents have received an annual payment of $800 or more. The 2019 PFD amount was $1,606 per person, an individual’s share of the total distributed dividends or of approximately $1,013,000,000. PFD eligibility requires a person to have lived in Alaska for one year, not be a convicted felon and be present in Alaska for at least 190 days in a calendar year.

Opportunity Maine has been enticing young workers to move to Maine since 2008: Move to and work in Maine and receive a tax break to reduce your student loans. There are various lines of small print, however, conceptually workers are able to deduct the total amount of money they paid in student loans for the year from their state income tax bill, up to $377 per month for 2018 bachelor graduates.

North Platte (Nebraska) is home to 24,000 people and is in need of skilled workers in factories, warehouses, medical centers and the railroad. WORK NP supports local employers and will match sign-up bonuses for new hires up to $5,000. The money can be used for things like relocation expenses, down payments or deposits, student loan repayment and more. Requirements include the worker must earn at least $20 per hour, live in the city for three years, and the employer must be a member of the North Platte chamber of commerce.

Closer to home, we are perhaps on the precipice of a modern day landrush in Kansas. In 2020, five Kansas towns are giving away free land for those who move and build a home. Specifications differ between sites, which include Marquette, Lincoln, Mankato, Osborne and Plainville. Contrastively, artist residency programs, such as the one in Alma, aim to secure residents through cultural incentives.

CHOICES TODAY CHOOSE TOPEKA’S FUTURE

Maybe the best selling point to secure young adult relocations to the middle of America is the promise that it won’t be underwater in 50 years due to rising sea levels…Underwater due to rising taxes, not a promise we can make.

Maybe the best selling point to secure your attention for the remainder of this article is the removal of the previous paragraph…as it provides little support for the momentum the previous 2,020 words have built.

But as the mayor said during the December JEDO meeting, “all boats must rise.”

Choose Topeka doesn’t begin to address quality of life concerns many of us have; it doesn’t claim to do so. Choose Topeka, at its core, is an employer-driven incentive plan that most likely affects but a handful of companies, benefiting a small number of people. A small number of people who could, quite possibly, have an enormous impact on our community.

As a community, we have an opportunity to leverage Choose Topeka as a test – a test to our inner confidence, self-awareness (how do you say it? “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough…”) and also to how welcoming we are.

We have an opportunity to continue creative conversations and take action, choosing how our Topeka looks and grows. We have an opportunity to platform off Choose Topeka and pilot truly innovative, mindful concepts – concepts which aim to elevate current residents as well as foster growth. Perhaps we consider including residency requirements, mandated or rewarded, in all future job creation incentive partnership packages or perhaps we financially incentivize Washburn graduates (you know, that homegrown talent we keep raving about) to professionally grow right here at home, or maybe we create a Topeka Safety Dividend which would aim to empower the community to collectively work to lower crime rates, and take that money saved annually and monetarily reward permanent residents.

Whatever boats we sail, we can choose to ultimately make a better quality of place in Topeka, an unsurpassable quality of place, and thereby earn media headlines that might read: “In a Category F5 Surprise, Topeka Named #1 Best City to Live and Work” or “There’s No Place Like Home; Wasbhurn Leads the Nation in Graduate Career Placement” or finally “Top City: More Than a Slogan.”

Local.
Period.

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