Lawrence and Topeka leaders plan joint trip to northwest Arkansas to study economic development, community building

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla, right, participates in a press conference Thursday with Matt Pivarnik, CEO of the Topeka Partnership, and Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence chamber of commerce. The two economic development organizations gathered in downtown Topeka to announce a trip the two organizations will take to northwest Arkansas later this year to study economic development and community building efforts in that growing region.

It is not often that a sentence begins with the phrase “if Lawrence and Topeka would have fallen in love with each other 50 years ago.”

But, indeed, that’s the picture Matt Pivarnik, chief executive of the economic development organization Topeka Partnership, was asking members of a Lawrence and Topeka crowd to envision on Thursday.

If that love affair had materialized, he said, he believed the two cities would have formed a metro area of about a half million people and an economy that would be the envy of many.

“I really do believe that if Lawrence and Topeka had fallen in love a long, long time ago that both of our communities would be absolutely better today because of it,” he said.

Well, love may not yet be in the air, but a trip together is on the calendar.

The Topeka Partnership and the Lawrence chamber of commerce hosted a joint press conference in downtown Topeka on Thursday to announce that a delegation from both cities would be traveling to northwest Arkansas to learn more about how that growing region is conducting economic development and community building.

Plans call for leaders of both economic development organizations, elected officials and “leaders of the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” to travel to northwest Arkansas on Oct. 6-8. The area includes the corporate headquarters for Walmart in Bentonville, and the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, along with tourist destinations like Bella Vista and Eureka Springs.

But its real standout component from an economic development standpoint may be its confluence of shipping and logistics companies that have located in the area. Pivarnik said he’s interested in learning how that region has built those synergies. He thinks learning how that region created synergies to build a massive shipping industry might help Lawrence and Topeka in efforts to create an animal sciences hub along the Kansas River corridor.

Pivarnik is guessing the trip will stress the importance of neighboring communities working together, which is why he was excited to learn Lawrence was interested in making the trip.

“What they do together is impressive,” Pivarnik said of the approximately dozen communities that make up the northwest Arkansas region. “When you go down there, you don’t say you are going to Rogers, you don’t say you are going to Springdale. You say you are going to northwest Arkansas.”

No one is saying that Lawrence and Topeka are set to have a shared identity anytime soon, but Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of The Chamber, said she and other Lawrence leaders were eager to make the trip with Topeka.

“Lawrence has never done one before,” Lowe said of an official intercity visit aimed at studying economic development and community building. “So, this is a perfect training ground for us as well to learn how to do this.”

Lowe said she could envision Lawrence and Topeka working more closely on some other initiatives in the future.

“I hadn’t fallen in love 40 or 50 years ago; I feel like we are engaged now,” Lowe said with a laugh. “There is a marriage right around the corner, so we’re getting very close.”

I asked Lowe afterward if she had any thoughts on other types of projects the two communities might work together on. She told me “to check back in mid-October.” Both Lowe and Pivarnik said one of the most important parts of the trip would be for community leaders of both cities to spend significant time with one another. Lowe said she expected multiple elected officials in Lawrence and Douglas County to make the trip. Both Lawrence Mayor Brad Finkeldei and Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla attended Thursday’s press conference. Lowe also said The Chamber would compile a list of other interested stakeholders in the community who want to be part of the traveling party.

“The whole intention is to be inclusive,” Lowe said.

She said anybody interested in receiving more information on attending the trip should contact The Chamber at 785-865-4411.


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