By Gene Meyer | Kansas Reporter
Gray, who represents an upscale southwest Topeka residential and shopping district, and Manspeaker, a residential area around Washburn University, say they believe that a taxpayer-funded joint Topeka-Shawnee County development organization is too chummy with established business leaders in Kansas’ capitol city to lure legions of job creators — and potential competitors — to the town.
The development group is GO Topeka, a subsidiary of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce that receives $5.6 million annually in city-county sales tax revenue to promote economic development.
“It’s not working,” said Gray. “We’ve given them what, maybe $55 million, in the last 10 years, and we’ve lost 7,000 jobs in the private sector.”
“They’ve done a horrible job,” said Manspeaker, who observed that competing cities, such as Lawrence and Manhattan, gained jobs in the past decade.
He attributes private-sector job losses in part to the tightly interwoven structure of the chamber and GO Topeka. Both are headed by the same CEO, Douglas Kinsinger as well as share a website and at least two staff members.
Manspeaker, who also is a non-voting member of a joint city county panel called the Joint Economic Development Organization, said he feels the tight relationship between the chamber and GO Topeka makes it harder to be certain that their use of sales tax money, overseen by JEDO, doesn’t become entangled with chamber money, which comes from members’ dues. JEDO doesn’t regulate dues money.
“I have no problem with spending for economic development, but we need to be accountable for it,” Manspeaker said.
Gray, a voting JEDO member, also said the chamber and GO Topeka need to be more forthcoming about how they handle taxpayers’ money.
Neither Kinsinger nor any of four other city council members who generally support the Chamber-GO Topeka relationship returned phone calls Monday. However, Martha Sheahan, the chamber’s vice president for public relations, disputed Gray’s and Manspeaker’s portrayals of GO Topeka’s track record.
“GO Topeka has been a great success,” Sheahan said.
The development shop scored its biggest coup in June 2011, when it led an effort to convince Mars North American Chocolate to build its first new U.S. candy factory in 35 years in Topeka . The factory, larger than six football fields, is projected to bring 200 permanent jobs and a $584 million boost to the region’s payrolls along with a $270 million increase in sales tax collections.
That is just one GO Topeka triumph, Sheahan said. It’s efforts also helped to bring Target Corp. and Home Depot distributions to the area; lure a major industrial baker, Bimbo, and keep more workers on the job with longer-term Topeka manufacturing stalwarts, Frito-Lay, Del Monte Corp. and Goodyear Tire and Rubber, she said.
By Chamber and GO Topeka calculations, “we’ve helped add or retain nearly 10,000 jobs since (GO Topeka’s) inception,” Sheahan said.
How that has changed Topeka’s job market remains unclear, though. Kansas Department of Labor records show that Topeka’s total workforce, including government workers, has grown by less than 500 people since January 2002, while the number actually working is 1,036 lower. High school yearbook maker Josten’s is closing a Topeka factory where 372 people work. The U.S. Postal Service is laying off 133 workers in a consolidation with its Kansas City operations, and the Kansas Department of Transportation recently announced it is cutting 40 jobs at its Topeka headquarters.
Contact Gene Meyer at email@example.com.