Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Residents Say Area 'Average at Best' ; Report Caps Phase One of Economic Development Assessment

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Residents Say Area 'Average at Best' ; Report Caps Phase One of Economic Development Assessment

Article excerpt

Residents of Topeka and Shawnee County think the area is "average, at best," when it comes to economic development, according to a consulting firm hired to evaluate economic development efforts in Shawnee County.

Garner Economics, which was hired by the Joint Economic Development Organization, released its assessment on Friday morning. Recommendations on measures JEDO, which is composed of city and county officials and administers the countywide half-cent sales tax, can take to improve local economic development efforts will come later.

The assessment covered local and external perceptions of JEDO, as well as its organizational structure and the way it works with other economic development organizations, such as Go Topeka, which it contracts with for economic development work. It also compared how economically competitive Shawnee County was with similar communities, including Linn County and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Minnehaha County and Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Hamilton County and Chattanooga, Tenn.

The portion of the assessment based on community input found a general lack of enthusiasm for the area, and participants noted a lack of diversity, lack of transparency in local government and distrust of local officials, imbalance in how the city and county invest their resources among areas and lack of focus on small and local businesses in economic development efforts. The focus groups were meant to gather opinions, and the report didn't attempt to answer whether concerns were justified.

Participants pointed to the NOTO Arts District, improvements in parks and recreation, downtown revitalization, the renewal of the half-cent sales tax and attractiveness to young families as positives about the area.

"While there were some points of community pride and recognition of the economic development wins and positive attributes as a place for business, the large majority of focus group participants ranked the region as average and were hard-pressed to name amenities or assets that set it apart from any other like-sized metropolitan area in the United States," the report said.

The report also noted that focus groups felt negativity was holding the community back, and that Topekans were too prone to compare their city unfavorably with Lawrence and Manhattan. The participants also faulted local media for allegedly encouraging negativity and local leaders for not publicizing successes.

"Several note that the City Council and County Commission have the tendency to say 'yes' to most ideas, resulting in programs that appear ad hoc, are unconnected and seem to have little return for the community as a whole," the report said.

Three of the participants' top five priorities for the community largely focused on feelings about the area: making the area "a place where workers want to live," creating a more positive attitude about the area and building trust and pride. …

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