By Kathryn A. Walson
In its reserved, midwestern way, Topeka has engineered a prosperity that most cities of similar size would envy. As the capital city of Kansas, nearly 25% of Topeka’s workforce is employed by the government, providing a stable job market. While unemployment rates have soared into double digits in some parts of the country, Topeka’s has stayed around or below 7%.
Even as businesses around the country were downsizing over the past couple of years, a number of companies in Topeka were expanding significantly. In 2009, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, for example, announced the largest capital investment in the city’s history: a $250-million plant modernization.
“Last year, we had the best year ever economically,” says Steve Jenkins, senior vice-president of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce. “We work on having a diverse economy, so that we don’t get caught with a single major employer slowing down and affecting the whole area.”
Companies with headquarters in Topeka include Collective Brands, which was formed in 2007 when Payless ShoeSource acquired Stride Rite Corp.; Hill’s Pet Nutrition, a global pet-food company; and Security Benefit, a national financial-services company that was bought by Guggenheim Partners in February but will keep its name. In addition to Goodyear, Frito-Lay and Del Monte Foods are major companies with manufacturing and distribution centers in Topeka.
And then there’s PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. From a coffeehouse opened in 1993 by Fred Polzin and Jeff Taylor, PT’s has grown into a coffee-supply business that roasts more than 100 tons of beans annually and sells them to more than 200 retailers nationwide. PT’s already does business in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. Polzin and Taylor plan to keep the company’s headquarters in Topeka but open coffeehouses and satellite offices in major metro areas. Polzin echoes many business leaders in Topeka when he says the city shines because of its low costs and centralized location, with easy access to the rest of the country.
To support its entrepreneurs, Topeka contributes 10% of the economic-development money generated by the city’s sales tax to minority- and women-owned businesses. In addition, businesses are eligible for microloans of up to $30,000, and the Chamber’s First Step FastTrac provides entrepreneurship training to aspiring small-business owners.
Ask Topekans why they love their city, and they’ll say it’s the quality of life. “It’s small enough that you still know everyone,” says Alissa Sheley, who has a 1-year-old. “But it’s big enough that there’s a lot to do.”
Topeka boasts quality schools, friendly people, good hospitals, a university and -- one of its biggest selling points -- low housing costs. You can get a three-bedroom house in a nice neighborhood for less than $200,000.
But like any city, Topeka has room for improvement. Its downtown district -- near the picturesque Capitol dome -- empties at 5 pm. Various groups and businesspeople are collaborating on a downtown revitalization project. And the development of an arts district is under way near the Kansas River.
Some Topekans say their city is newly energized, thanks in part to a grassroots group called Think Big Topeka, whose mission is to promote the city. The group formed earlier this year through Facebook with the idea of attracting Google’s fiber-optic Internet experiment to their city. They asked Mayor William Bunten to change the city’s name to Google -- and he did, unofficially, for the month of March. To everyone’s surprise, the Internet powerhouse returned the favor by changing its name to Topeka on April Fool’s Day. The mayor received calls from media outlets around the country and the world. “Topeka showed the world how quickly we come together around things that benefit our community,” says Jared Starkey, who had the idea to attract Google. “People in Topeka are really proud of living here.”