TOPEKA, Kansas — This state capital made national headlines in December when it announced it would pay anyone up to $15,000 to move here and work for local companies in Shawnee County.
With about 130,000 people, the state government, two hospitals and a university, Topeka is hardly a small town. But its local reputation isn’t the most exciting, especially with artsy college town Lawrence a short commute down Interstate 70 and Kansas City about an hour away.
With the offer of thousands of dollars to buy a house or rent an apartment, the city is hoping to change that.
“People haven’t come back to see what’s been happening,” said Barbara Stapleton, a vice president of Go Topeka, the city-county partnership that put together the program. “We’re in the midst of our quote-unquote ‘renaissance,’ but it’s not complete.”
She hopes the program will attract at least a few dozen employees who make about $60,000 a year. Participants will get $10,000 — or $15,000 if they’re buying a house. Half of the money will come from their employers and half will be funded by a county sales tax.
Stapleton expects the bounties to generate millions of dollars in taxes and business for the city. No local companies have signed on yet, but several are interested. And so are more than a thousand people from around the world who have applied or asked for more information.
“You’d be surprised how many of those applications have come in from New York and New Jersey,” Stapleton said, “as well as from California and Texas.”
How much is enough?
On a sunny winter afternoon on Kansas Avenue, downtown Topeka’s main street, some local residents said they weren’t sure if they would take the deal.
The city doesn’t have much to offer compared to nearby Lawrence, said Laura Shaneyfelt, who commutes from the college town to her job in Topeka.
“At this stage in my life, I don’t think that would be a matter of money,” she said. “It’s really quality of life. … I get the sense that there aren’t lots of things for young people to do.”
The city’s reputation for crime adds to a negative image, said Erin Cook, who lives in the nearby countryside.
“It is very stereotyped that it’s just not a good town to live in,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of lower-income areas that maybe people just get a bad impression of.”
To convince her to move, she said, the city would have to pay her much more than it’s offering.
“Oh gosh. Maybe like $100,000, $50,000,” she said. “I don’t know. I just like having my space.”
Making a difference
Cash is just one way to convince people to move to a new place, said Zachary Mannheimer, a consultant who’s traveled all over the Midwest to towns and cities who want to attract more young people, businesses and creative professionals.
Other strategies that work include business incentives and promoting arts and culture, Mannheimer said. People no longer move just to get a job.
“They want the right types of housing and cultural amenities and entrepreneurial opportunities and trails and walking spaces,” he said. “That’s what they’re looking for. Then they decide on the job.”
But really what makes people stay is the chance to make a difference. And a mid-sized city like Topeka could be the perfect place, he said.
“If one of your goals as a person is to help make the world a better place,” he said, “I would argue you’re going to have better odds of achieving that in a smaller location.
For therapist Tara Wallace, her hometown Topeka is that place.
She remembers summers playing Frisbee, picnics at Lake Shawnee and her grandmother fundraising for neighborhood trips to a local amusement park. Wallace moved away as an adult, but in 2010, she came back for that sense of community.
“You can’t go to any area of town and not at least run into one or two people who know you or know your family,” she said. “And so that makes you family to them.”
Like anywhere else, Wallace said, Topeka is what you make of it.
“If you come with the mentality that Topeka is crime-ridden, that it’s boring and all of that, that’s basically what you're going to get,” she said. “But if you come into Topeka with an open mind and say, ‘Let me see what I can do, let me see what I can find’... you can create something amazing.”
Nomin Ujiyediin reports on criminal justice and social welfare for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @NominUJ or email nomin (at) kcur (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.