May 29, 2019

Momentum grows in Topeka via holistic economic development plan


— By Keith Warta, CEO, Bartlett & West. This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine and is available online at https://rebusinessonline.com/momentum-grows-in-topeka-via-holistic-economic-development-plan-2/.

A renaissance is underway in Topeka, Kansas, with undeniable momentum as new commercial, industrial and residential developments emerge citywide.

The year 2015 was pivotal with a $9.4 million public-private investment in infrastructure and amenities along Kansas Avenue downtown. Local investors have purchased more than 25 buildings on the avenue for gradual restoration into thriving businesses like Iron Rail Brewing, The Pennant, Cyrus Hotel and Kansas Avenue Lofts.

The 45,000-square-foot Evergy Plaza is slated to open in March 2020 in the shadow of the Kansas Statehouse. A crowning jewel of downtown development, the plaza will feature a 50-foot performance stage, digital screen, programmable fountains, fireplaces and an ice skating rink during the winter. According to a recent market study, growth in the Capital City shows no signs of slowing down. St. Louis-based Development Strategies says downtown could support expansion over the next decade to include 900 new or rehabilitated housing units, 300,000 square feet of new or  rehabilitated office space, 690,000 square feet of retail space and at least 200 more hotel rooms.

“Investments downtown enhance quality of life and quality of place to help attract and retain a workforce that will take us into the next 15 to 20 years,” says Vince Frye, president and CEO of Downtown Topeka Inc.

Quality of place

Elsewhere in Topeka, other developments are contributing to quality of life as well. Wheatfield Village, a planned $100 million mixed-use development set for completion in 2020, will include Marriott Springhill Suites, restaurants, a nine-screen movie theater and a 178-unit apartment complex.

Washburn University and Washburn Institute of Technology have joined forces with the community to expand workforce development training through the East Topeka Learning Center. Incentive options like cash grants for employment, investment and land acquisition bolster the holistic approach to developing Topeka. The effort is generating strong excitement, as evidenced by the 14-point year-over-year increase in the city’s Net Promoter Score. The index scoring system measures the willingness of consumers to recommend a brand to others.

“That’s unheard of. It shows that what we’re doing is working,” says Matt Pivarnik, CEO of Greater Topeka Partnership.

Business growth

While Topeka expands its options for entertainment and workforce development, its business community is doubling down on local investments. Hill’s Pet Nutrition is planning a $20 million expansion of its manufacturing plant over the next two years, to include a pet nutrition center that will facilitate animal nutritional research.

An $86.5 million, 320,000-square-foot plant for Reser’s Fine Foods opened last March. Around the same time, Mars Chocolate North America debuted a $55 million plant expansion within Kanza Fire Commerce Park.

“With our central location having interstate access in all directions, distributors can have their supply closer to the major markets,” says City Manager Brent Trout. “We’ve done a lot with distribution centers for Target and Home Depot, and I think that’s going to be a core function that will continue to expand.”

Infrastructure improvements

Topeka is working to proactively address infrastructure needs for current and future industry. This includes water system improvements to increase capacity and pressure and street improvements that are well-supported through a sales tax by public vote.

At its wastewater treatment plant, the city hopes to mitigate rate increases by reclaiming and selling biogas.

“That is a project we feel will help our economic viability, which will help rates in the future by having an additional revenue resource for our wastewater treatment,” says Trout.

A holistic approach

Momentum 2022, an economic development plan driven by eight months of research and strategic planning, has generated the most cohesive direction Topeka has seen in decades.

Strategy groups meet regularly to focus on measurable results around community engagement, economic development, entrepreneurship, quality of place and talent development.

Whether downtown or across town, corporate or industry, Topeka leaders are excited to engage the community in a holistic approach.

“Momentum 2022 is communitywide,” says Pivarnik. “People in the community can see that these organizations have come together to focus on one strategy. It makes sense to everybody and people are getting behind it.”

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