"Should I stay or should I go?" How Topeka, Kansas handles its conservative image
Keeping educated and skilled workers from leaving the Alabama Gulf coast is an ongoing concern. Efforts are underway at the state, regional and local levels to attract and hold onto these workers. Surveys of those leaving Alabama for other parts of the U.S. cite a range of complaints as reasons for looking elsewhere to work and live. The Alabama Public Radio news team will examine problems and search for solutions, here and elsewhere. The state of Kansas made national headlines when voters resoundingly rejected a ballot item restricting abortion. This result occurs while Topeka, like the Alabama Gulf coast, tries to manage its conservative image that workers may find unacceptable.
Alabama workers responded to a survey by the State Commission on Higher Education on why they might leave to seek jobs elsewhere. They complained of politics, bigoted attitudes, and few cultural opportunities. While Alabama appears to have issues to work out among its workforce, other states do as well.
Kansas, for example.
“There is a bias people have when they assume they know what Kansas is because they will automatically see that we are a quote-in-quote red state,” said Bob Ross. He’s spokesman for the Greater Topeka Partnership in Kansas. “Especially being in Topeka, which is also the home of the Westboro Baptist Church, a virulent anti-LGBT movement known for protesting around the world in a very hostile fashion.”
Kansas is working to retain workers in its state through a campaign called the Choose Topeka Initiative. The effort began in December 2019. GO Topeka and the Greater Topeka Partnership recognized a city with a stagnant population and limited social scene. Partnership spokesman Bob Ross said Topeka had lost its spark.
“Topeka as a community had taken its attention off the quality of place metrics that people are looking for,” he said. “We had allowed our downtown to be neglected. As of 2015, our downtown was about 60% vacant. We had a lot of employers downtown, some really great Fortune 500 companies were operating out of there, but there was no real restaurant and dining scene. There was no place for people to gather.”
Up until 1980, Topeka’s population was growing roughly 17% every decade. After 1980, population growth flatlined and only moved about 3% each year. The city’s working population also suffered. Forty percent of people working in Shawnee County, home of Topeka, were living outside of the city and county. The Choose Topeka Initiative was created at a time when competition for talent was fierce and only getting fiercer. Ross said the program has opened the door for the city.
“Topeka is acting almost like a startup right now,” Ross said. “The hood’s up, everyone’s tinkering with everything. Change is possible in this city at such a large scale, but honestly we needed those incentive dollars to put on the table. To almost challenge people to stay, ‘We dare you. Come live here for a year. See what’s happening.’ That’s kind of like our version of the old fashioned Pepsi Challenge.”
The program selects roughly 30 individuals or families per year. Applicants may select one of two tracks. There is an employer-funded incentive that attracts people to work for a Shawnee County-based employer. If applicants accept a job from one of these employers, they are eligible for $15,000 to purchase a home based on the salary tier they fall within. Employers will give the $15,000 up front. The initiative will reimburse employers after applicants complete a full year of residency. The second track is exclusive to remote workers. Applicants can work remotely for any employer outside of Shawnee County. As long as their employer approves of the program, they are given $10,000 to relocate. The initiative gives the $10,000 upfront. Workers can receive $5,000 if they wish to rent instead of purchase. Seventy people have relocated through this program to date.
Since then, the average salary among participants is $90,000 per year. The initiative has made a 14x return on investment in the first year alone. The first 30 participants had an economic impact of $3.8 million alone. Ross said this kind of success can happen in Alabama.
“A lot of times, a state like Alabama doesn’t have to court the next Amazon HQ to relocate to Birmingham,” he said. “All they need to do is help to get some of those newly freed, remote workers who can be all over the place to choose there. They can live better and bring that salary with them. That levels the playing field for a lot of smaller states and smaller cities.”
State agencies have looked for reasons why in and out-of-state workers and students are fleeing Alabama. The Alabama Commission on Higher Education released its Retain Alabama Survey Report last November. The commission found residents and non-residents both held low opinions of Alabama’s acceptance of people from diverse backgrounds, political environment, salary and cost of living. Of 8,208 students surveyed, white students were most likely to stay in state. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were the least likely to stay. Roughly half of African American and Hispanic students were unsure whether they would stay after graduation or not.
Attitudes and politics in Topeka, Kansas are apparently leaving some job seekers a little nervous about moving to the “Sunflower State.” One applicant from California was anxious to apply to Choose Topeka because of the state’s rhetoric. Ross said he knew the initiative had to overcome this.
“Their cost of living was incredibly high,” he said. “She wasn’t making any progress going forward in her life. Her husband and she were looking to come here, but they were a biracial couple. They were actually very nervous. Would they be safe leaving California and coming to a community like ours? It actually kind of broke my heart because I had no idea they would feel unsafe.”
The initiative participated in the Inclusive Topeka program, which put decals across businesses around the city reminding job seekers they were valued and appreciated. Choose Topeka also remains adamant in promoting an inclusive and accepting Topeka through marketing and promoting upcoming social events like Pride Kansas.