Lawrence, Topeka leaders continue to look at becoming stronger economic development partners
Go, fight, win … Topeka.
That’s a phrase that may sound a little odd reverberating off Mt. Oread or echoing down Massachusetts Street, but Lawrence community leaders are getting behind the idea of rooting for the capital city.
The Lawrence chamber of commerce and Topeka’s equivalent — the Greater Topeka Partnership — have been working together for more than a year to create closer ties between the neighboring communities. You may remember the joint trip community leaders from both cities took last year to northwest Arkansas to learn more about how multiple communities in that region work together.
On Friday, Lawrence and Topeka concluded a two-day joint tour of their communities with about 35 Topeka residents hearing presentations from Lawrence leaders and visiting key sites at KU and around town. Lawrence leaders did a similar tour in Topeka on Thursday.
Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of The Chamber in Lawrence, said the relationship between the two economic development organizations has really grown.
“We support each other. We are cheerleaders for each other,” Lowe said. “We are still going to compete against each other for different projects, but when we are not competing, we are cheerleaders for the other.”
Matt Pivarnik, CEO for the Greater Topeka Partnership, envisions a day when even the competition between Topeka and Lawrence looks much different. He said he’s interested in finding a major economic development project that Lawrence, Topeka and maybe even Manhattan could apply for together.
While the communities have been rivals in several regards, Pivarnik said the combined forces of the communities may be too powerful to let any rivalries keep them apart. The biggest asset of a combination might be the communities’ combined population. He said the three metro areas have a combined population of 505,000 people, currently.
“I’m a firm believer that communities the size of Topeka and Lawrence get ruled out of a lot of economic development projects because of their population,” he said. “If we could figure out how to market ourselves as a region of 505,000 people, we probably could get on a lot more lists for economic development projects.”
Getting on a list together is one thing. But what happens when a company chooses the region, and then one of the three communities ends up being the winner of all the jobs, while the other two are left with their pom-poms?
Pivarnik said building up the right attitude ahead of time is a big part of any successful partnership. He said communities have to believe they are not engaged in a zero-sum game, but rather believe that when one community in the region wins a project, it ultimately will be good for all the communities in the region.
That was the constant message that northwest Arkansas leaders preached to the Lawrence and Topeka groups a year ago. The Arkansas communities are firm believers in first getting a company hooked on the region, before they start worrying about which town may win the project.
“They market as a region, and then when it gets down to it, they have a friendly competition,” Pivarnik said.
Thus far, Lawrence and Topeka haven’t made any joint applications for economic development projects, and there is not a timeline to do so. Pivarnik said companies that are related to the Panasonic battery plant in De Soto, though, might produce some opportunities. Several of those could be pretty large, and the power of a joint application might be useful, he said.
Until then, though, Lowe said conversations between the Lawrence chamber and the Topeka Partnership will continue, with an eye toward other events and opportunities. She noted that following the Northwest Arkansas trip, some county officials from both Douglas and Shawnee counties had made a connection and had been talking about longer-term projects involving trail connections between the two counties.
Pivarnik also said the visitors bureaus in both Lawrence and Topeka have done some work together, and likely would do more work in the future as they think about ways to attract more regional tourist events.
The Topeka delegation on Friday heard presentations about Lawrence’s downtown, the city’s workforce and longer-term goals, such as creating more development along the Kansas River. The group also toured the Lawrence Arts Center, the Jayhawk Welcome Center, KU Innovation Park, and the Dole Institute of Politics, among other attractions.