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Best City for Your Future: Topeka, Kan.

Readers chose the capital of Kansas as their favorite city by voting on Facebook.

By Jennifer Connor

Topekans made it clear that there really is no place like home. They turned our list of Best Cities for the Next Decade upside down, making Topeka the winner of our Readers' Choice designation as Best City for Your Future through a competition on Facebook.

Kiplinger’s list of Best Cities for the Next Decade showcased ten vibrant U.S. cities -- including Topeka, Kan., at number 10 -- with likely future growth in high-quality jobs and income. Our list reflected number crunching by the Martin Prosperity Institute, a think tank that studies economic prosperity, as well as our on-site reporting in each city.

To hear firsthand from residents, we set up a Facebook page for each city. Then we invited users to pick their favorite and share personal insights and photos. We capped the month-long voting on June 30, but the outpouring of support for the capital of Kansas hasn’t subsided. As of July 20, 1,264 people had become fans of our Topeka page on Facebook.

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“Topeka deserves this publicity. It’s a great place to live,” Topeka Facebook fan Darrell D. Six wrote, calling it “a magnet for new business, with safe streets, good people, and a multitude of people who want to make it better.”

Many residents touted steady housing prices and an unemployment rate that has remained around 7% throughout the economic downturn. Added fan Carol Stormer, “Topeka has been a great place to live and raise my children. Not too big or too small. Friendly people. Low cost of housing. Did I mention great people?”

Facebook fan Kathy Valentine even provided her own “Top Ten Reasons for Choosing Topeka,” which include high-quality bus transportation and entertainment events at both the Kansas Expocentre and Topeka Performing Arts Center.

On our Topeka Facebook page, fan Kevin Doel shared the story of how an acquaintance approached him at a cookout in Boston to mention the Kiplinger article and ask about Topeka.

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Doel, who is the owner of three small businesses, including Talon Communications Group, has lived in Topeka for 38 years. Along the way, he spent five years in Dallas but relocated his businesses to Topeka, where he grew up. “With technology where it is, nobody cares where my office is,” Doel said in a phone interview. “The cost of living is much better in Topeka, and it’s a great place to raise kids.

“I think Topeka is great for small business growth. Payless started here with just one store and has grown tremendously,” Doel points out. “I don’t see big businesses relocating to Topeka. But I think if our city focuses on bringing in small businesses, they will become national and prosperous."

Like Doel, Facebook fan Barbara Waterman-Peters celebrates her return to Topeka. “Topeka is a wonderful place! I was born here and have always returned to this city,” she wrote. “For years, I have listened to people who live and earn money here but put it down. How refreshing to hear so many people now exclaim its marvels!"

But Topekans on Facebook also revealed some of their concerns about their hometown. One frequent complaint: The looming disbandment of the city’s Human Relations Commission (HRC) -- part of a broader culture of intolerance within the city, some residents wrote.

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Facebook fan Jason Chaika commented that if the commission were to be eliminated, the city should send back its Best Cities award, noting that eight of the other nine cities on Kiplinger’s list have Human Rights Commissions. (On June 15, the Topeka City Council voted 5 – 2 in support of the proposal by City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. to disband the HRC.)

Topeka struggles with other problems, too, according to Facebook fan Jason Miller, who sees a need for stronger prevention of gang and drug violence. “Our elementary school records are down 14% below the national average. Our graduation rates and advancement into higher learning are alarmingly low,” he wrote.

But Miller and other Topekans aren’t ignoring these problems. And our original review of Topeka, while lamenting that the downtown district empties at 5 p.m., points out an ongoing revitalization project that includes the development of an arts center on the Kansas River.

“Twenty years ago, our younger generation would have been embarrassed to be from Topeka because it wasn’t ‘cool’ enough,” Doel said. “But now the younger people are much more proud of their city and are doing something to make it better -- to make Topeka special."