Are residents of the capital city of Kansas just people who ran out of gas on their way to somewhere else? Comedian Steven Colbert said as much on The Late Show last week, but a new program to attract residents to Topeka shines a light on positive reasons to make Kansas home.
Although headlines have simplified Choose Topeka as a program that hands over cash to people who move to the city, the actual program is more nuanced. Local employers who hire out-of-town residents can offer between $10,000 and $15,000 to help cover moving expenses. If the new hires remain in Topeka for a year, Topeka’s economic development organization will reimburse the employer half of the expenses.
The program is based on a similar initiative, albeit with different requirements, in Tulsa, Okla.
Within days of the program’s launch, Choose Topeka became a national news story, with coverage from the New York Times, Fox Business, CNN, TIME and other national outlets. Much of the coverage was positive, but the program also brought some ridicule. Colbert joked that the program was needed because “Topeka’s current residents are all drivers who ran out of gas on their way to anywhere else.”
Topekans have shown their sense of humor by taking the punchlines in stride. Days after the Colbert comments, a group of residents produced a video featuring a group of young people running out of gas and joining a friendly, enthusiastic party at a new downtown restaurant, their empty gas cans littering a corner near the bar.
Topeka-based clothing manufacturer Reliant Apparel quickly produced a line of shirts, patches and hats with the now-popular “Topeka: a Great Place to Run Out of Gas” slogan.
There are good reasons to move to the Sunflower State.
According to US Census Bureau data, home costs in Kansas are 36% lower than the national average, and lower still in Topeka. Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates released last week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show Kansas at 3.1 percent, slightly below the national average at 3.5 percent. The capital city, specifically, is in the midst of a cultural renaissance that includes dozens of new downtown businesses, a growing arts district and a range of interesting attractions scattered among historic neighborhoods.
Choose Topeka is breaking new ground in the state. Economic incentive packages are common in Kansas, but most are focused on attracting and retaining businesses, or encouraging business expansion. Such initiatives are important, but a program that gives money directly to residents, even if through their employers, is a welcome addition to the mix of programs drawing new residents to Kansas.
Other Kansas communities should look carefully at the results of the program in the coming years and consider their own initiatives to bring new residents to their towns.
Thus far, the program has generated inquiries from thousands of interested applicants, an encouraging sign. Kansas will welcome new residents to Topeka, whether out of gas or at a full tank.