Topeka — Economic development is a little like courtship, says Steve Jenkins, senior vice president of Go Topeka Economic Partnership, but as he describes the city’s pursuit of a new Mars candy factory, tactics from the art of war also come into play.
Be aware of the enemy (the dozens of other communities also being considered). Be comfortable with secrets (code names for projects are useful). And choose weapons wisely (incentives tailored to the company being pursued).
State agencies and Go Topeka Economic Partnership apparently got the mix right. Last week, Mars Inc. announced it would build a 350,000-square-foot plant — its first candy factory in 35 years — in Topeka’s Kanza Fire Commerce Park, at an initial cost of $250 million.
Groundbreaking is scheduled for August, with the plant expected to start turning out Snickers and M&M’s in late 2013. Operated by Mars Chocolate North America, the plant is expected to have about 200 employees to start, with what the company said is the potential to eventually create 1,000 direct and indirect jobs.
Jenkins said that securing the largest single economic investment in the city’s history began with the courtship-like side of economic development.
“It is based on relationships. Building relationships with companies is crucial,” he said. “They trusted us, and we trusted them.”
When competing with other cities — in this case, 82 potential sites in 13 states — it is important the entities aren’t sitting across the table from each other. “We need to be sitting side by side with them,” Jenkins said.
Go Topeka learned last September from the Kansas Department of Commerce’s East Coast office about a company looking for a location.
The company — which was known only to Go Topeka as “Project Sweetness,” later to become “Project Pepper” and then “Project Buffalo” — had specific criteria, such as rail access and a large amount of land.
Go Topeka answered several questions and heard from the company within two weeks about a visit to the city. Jenkins and several other people had to sign a nondisclosure agreement about the company, although Jenkins knew it was Mars.
The company sent a site selection committee to Topeka, where the visitors took photos of Kanza Fire Commerce Park and asked to see downtown.
“They want to be in a community that is on the move and vibrant,” Jenkins said. “They are excited about the plans for downtown.”
The Mars officials also headed to metropolitan Kansas City to look at a potential site, but they contacted Go Topeka within two weeks.
“Then things kicked into high gear,” Jenkins said, with the company rapidly whittling down the possible sites to a handful.
More visits followed. Mars officials met with people from other major Topeka employers, such as Goodyear and Frito Lay, and from school districts, cultural groups and Washburn University. The local groups weren’t told the company’s name.
Next came months of financial negotiations that Jenkins said could sometimes feel like a battle.
“This is a tough business,” Jenkins said. “It is intensively competitive. Those incentive packages become very important when you are down to the final two or three.
“There is a lot of strategy involved. You know your enemy is out there, but you don’t know what they are using for weapons. It’s intense. The larger the project, the more complex.”
What emerged was an incentive package totaling slightly more than $9 million, including the land, site and infrastructure improvements, permit fees, and an agreement with Washburn to help train employees.
On the day before the deal’s announcement in Topeka, Jenkins traveled to Mars Chocolate North America’s corporate headquarters in Hackettstown, N.J., for the internal announcement.
“That place just erupted in applause,” he said. “They are excited this company is growing.”