Topeka economic development experts shared insight into their work at a Thursday-evening presentation, highlighting the multiple pathways in which a city expands and grows.
GO Topeka, the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce’s economic development arm, sponsored the “Economic Development 101” forum, which drew about 20 people at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library.
Four GO Topeka staff members broke the process down into business attraction, business retention, workforce and education and entrepreneurial and minority business development.
Jackie Steele, vice president of business retention and expansion, told those gathered that while adding new big businesses to the Topeka landscape, such as the addition of Mars, is the “exciting, sexy thing,” much of a community’s growth comes from businesses already located there.
“Ultimately, the goal is to make sure the companies that are here are happy here, that they stay here, that they grow here,” she said.
Steele spends much of her time visiting Topeka businesses, hearing what they need to grow and then bringing back that data and working with GO Topeka staff to determine what needs to happen to eliminate barriers to their business growth and expansion.
Barbara Stapleton, vice president of workforce and education, also listens to employers and educational institutions so she can assess workforce needs. One of Topeka’s strengths is the ability to create customized training through Washburn Institute of Technology.
“Workforce and education are those critical areas for removing barriers,” she said.
Glenda Washington, vice president of entrepreneurial and minority business development, offers support throughout the life cycle of Topeka small businesses, usually classified as those with 50 or fewer employees.
Businesses have five life cycles, she said, from when they’re just an idea in an entrepreneur’s imagination to when the business owner is looking at selling or retiring. Her job, Washington said, is to offer support at each of those stages, from helping to create business plans to working to provide financial incentives that allow businesses to expand.
GO Topeka currently is working to create a micro-loan program that would provide funding of $10,000 to $15,000 to businesses wanting to grow, she said.
Molly Howey, senior vice president of economic development, recruits and attracts new business to Topeka. She rounded out Economic Development 101 by talking about all the aspects of a community that come into consideration when businesses are considering locating there. Companies sometimes take months or even years to make a decision on where they’ll locate, Howey said. Her job is to show them the resources the community will have at their disposal.
That means talking with the county, the city, utility companies and others that impact Topeka’s growth, and then working with others at GO Topeka to address any barriers that keep companies from moving to the capital city.
“Things like quality of life come into play,” she said, adding that companies want to know they can attract employees to a city that’s a good place to live and play.