I would like to thank The Topeka Capital-Journal for inviting me to look back at the years I have served as your Mayor. The past five years have been incredibly challenging, exciting, frustrating and rewarding – occasionally all at once. Those adjectives are healthy symptoms of the price required to gain the real progress we have made. Thanks to that progress, everyone in Topeka has so much to celebrate.
Let’s start with our downtown, the heart of any city.
Kansas Avenue from 10th to 6th is looking better by the day. I am pleased to say the city took the first step, investing resources in the long-neglected infrastructure. The result is a beautiful avenue. What was truly impressive in this effort was how so many of our major corporations, financial institutions and organizations stepped up and invested their own money to help us realize a comprehensive improvement plan. The result on Kansas Avenue is 12 pocket parks with six statues and three fountains where Topekans and visitors can pause to reflect on our city’s heritage. A cultural transformation has taken place in our downtown.
Let’s next consider the quality of life for our city. It’s a term that gets tossed around a lot, one that’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
One key to determine quality of life in a city is how the arts are supported; in Topeka, they are cherished by a thriving community. Last June, when Expedia selected “cities that embrace the art world in active and interesting ways,” Topeka was one of only five cities of similar size to be recognized. We are grateful for the recognition, but anyone who has been in NOTO on a First Friday can feel its festive atmosphere amid the crowds. We also have our ten outdoor murals, brightening neighborhoods around town. Murals provide a nice oasis in a busy urban setting and add pride to the neighborhoods where they stand.
But quality of life is not just a feel-good issue. It’s an economic development necessity. Businesses looking to relocate here mention it over and over again as a key factor in making their decisions. Young people who are essential to growing our economy know instinctively if there are good things going on here.
We see what is happening here in three ways.
First, a downtown being reborn; second, an expanding quality of life; and third, a community that has come together with new ideas and healthy collaborations. These are the ingredients of a city on the move, and Topeka has them.
But the backbone of all of this is our economy. It’s what makes everything else possible.
Let’s look at specific positive events. The Federal Home Loan Bank has a $23 million new home on Menninger Hill. Security Benefit has experienced astounding growth. The Mars plant announced a $55 million expansion in 2017 to add to a $100 million expansion in 2015. Meanwhile, our unemployment rate has remained below 4 percent during this time, consistently lower than the national average.
Ironically, that last point is one of our city’s challenges. Employers tell me again and again they can’t find enough qualified applicants to fill the jobs they have. We must train more people to make them ready for jobs, and we must convince young people that Topeka is a good place to live and a place where they can find success. Young men and women are the lifeblood of an expanding workforce and an energetic city.
I know you join me in wanting Topeka to remain a town that can capture the imagination of the young, where they decide to stay and raise their families because there is opportunity and excitement.
We didn’t get here by chance. I salute the Topeka City Council members who have worked harmoniously in recent years to support the issues bringing our city to the forefront. Outstanding steps have been taken by city staff responding to our highest priorities. Efforts must continue to fully address the needs of all citizens.
It has been an honor to serve this city, and to serve you while Topeka has undergone a transformation. I want to thank you for your vote of confidence. Improvements like those we are witnessing were brought about by many individuals rolling their sleeves up and committing to make a difference.
To all of them, to you, I owe my appreciation and thanks. I ask you to join me in continuing to support Topeka’s changes and growth, so that it will always be the place we are proud to call home.
Larry Wolgast is the mayor of Topeka.