Topeka’s economic plan for the future

TOPEKA, Kan. (KSNT) – Imagine more restaurants and shops in downtown Topeka and a start-up spot for new businesses.

The city says those things are in the works for the capital city.

Kansas First News Anchor Cristina Frank takes a look at the plans…and finds out: is it a reality?

“I want you to picture what you think this city might look like…when you can start over in NOTO. Alright, dream a little bit: an area from NOTO…to the Great Overland Station…to the development of first riverfront park….to having an actual river with kayak races, sail boating…whatever…people can stroll along the levees. To a new downtown…with historic elements,” Heartland Visioning Executive Director John Hunter said.

That’s what city leaders say is the future for Topeka.

Groups like Heartland Visioning, Go Topeka, the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Topeka, Inc. and the city itself are working toward that plan.

But what does it take to get to a booming economic future?

Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast says…. it starts downtown.

“That’s the first of where we will see economic growth and it’s a good part of the city’s plan,” Wolgast said.

“You cannot have a successful, economic development program without a vibrant downtown, ” President and CEO of Downtown Topeka, Inc., Vince Frye, said.

Frye says by 2015 he wants to see Kansas Avenue as a place with restaurants, retail shops and entertainment.

The goal is to bring more people downtown during week nights and weekends.

“We are talking to restaurants and other retailers from outside of this market…and they do see a great opportunity,” Frye said.

And also attracting people to live there.

Frye says loft apartment spaces are growing downtown – 12 buildings were bought in the past year for those developments.

“A lot of those businesses realize downtown is essential to their ability to recruit and to retain quality employees,” Frye said.

The Greater Topeka Chamber and Go Topeka – focus on bringing in those employers.

“Two of the sectors we’re contemplating more and thinking about putting more resources into are aviation and also financial services,” President and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and Go Topeka, Doug Kinsinger, said.

“Financial services is an area that we have some good depth in here…but, we’re having a lot more growth recently through the acquisition of Security Benefit by Guggenheim, Kinsinger said.

Kinsinger says Topeka is making strides in the financial area – especially with a new headquarters for Advisors Excel. Go Topeka says it wants to continue to help support and grow those high-wage and high-tech jobs.

The group says it wants to take advantage of the 12,800 foot long runway at Forbes Field – which is a rarity for its length.

“We do have Fort Riley nearby…and some of the other resources that we are hoping that we can bring in some businesses that might be suppliers to the aviation industry…or maybe some new technology that may be associated with it,” Vice President of Economic Development for Go Topeka, Scott Smathers, said.

“What available buildings are out there…what properties are available, where the infrastructure is at and things like that….then, we’ll have to put together some marketing materials and figure out the best place to go to market there. The key that we have to look at is the workforce that’s out there. We’re not necessarily going to go head-to-head for instance, like Wichita, as an example…because they have the skilled workforce there,” Smathers said. “As many of the airlines are beginning to replace their fleets…there are all of these airplanes that still have valuable components that need to be recycled. We’re wondering if we perhaps could be a good home for a firm that deals with those aircraft that can recycle the valuable components.”

Another idea is to have a space downtown to help start-up companies get on their feet with a technology incubator.

“Where the co-work space is where a lot of service companies, perhaps marketing, architectural, maybe web-based companies could be co-located together and somehow benefit from each other and solve problems for each other,” Kinsinger said.

Organizers are looking at places downtown…but no final spot has been chosen.

“We just want to make sure we are continuing to add other components to our economy so that if state government, due to policy changes or philosophical changes…changes their size or approach, so that we’re not so dependent on one major employer,” Kinsinger said.

The chamber says they hope to have it ready to go by the end of 2014.

And the search to find businesses to move into empty places is ongoing.

For example, Go Topeka says a local company has leased space in the old Hallmark facility.

“We do try to make sure that it’s on every real estate listing and some of the national and statewide databases so that companies who are looking for sites can make sure they consider that,”Kinsinger said.

Wolgast says the MARS plant is a huge boost for the city…..especially after some big businesses have left.

“Of course the MARS plant is the biggest certainly. Another good example is Southwest Publishing…taking over the Josten’s plant…which is a large facility. There was concern if it was going to be filled….well, they are going to be using it….filling it,” Wolgast said.

The next part of the plan: developing the Kansas River.

Wolgast says all future plans depend on one thing: getting congress’ approval for levees.

Wolgast says that legislation is sitting in a conference committee.

Last year, the Topeka Shawnee County Riverfront Authority Board hired a consultant.

One of the main concern’s he highlighted: making safety improvements to the weir, a low dam meant to raise water upstream.

“The riverfront, the corps of engineers play a big role. The levees have to be repaired,” Wolgast said.

Heartland Visioning’s Executive Director, John Hunter, says the NOTO arts district….is proof that this change is really taking place.

“It’s not what I picture: it’s what’s happening. Come to NOTO on a first Friday…it’s happening,” Hunter said.

Hunter says these city-wide ideas….are more than just projects….it’s major urban development.

And while there isn’t one master plan….they say what’s motivating them is a dedication to push capital city in a direction looking ahead.

“The difference is where we are today and where we were 5 and 10 and 15 years ago…we have much more of an agreement on we want to move this city forward,” Wolgast said.

“And let people know…these projects are not over with. And there are great people that are going to just keep working,” Hunter said.

Every four to five years – there is a gauge taken of the city’s business trends and conditions to see what works in a community.

That’s called a Target Industry Analysis.

The chamber says Topeka will get that evaluation at the end of this year.

Mayor Wolgast also noted the addition of daily airline flights to Chicago has been vital for the city. Wolgast says it makes the city more accessible and attractive to companies.

What types of businesses do you want to see in Topeka?

Head to our facebook “Kansas First News” page and let us know what you think.

You can also let us know on twitter…..respond @kansasfirstnews and use #IWantInTopeka

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