By Tim Hrenchir
Forbes Field has the potential to become a "world-class commercial logistics hub," according to site consultants who recently studied Topeka's possibilities for economic development.
Forbes is "one of the region's top potential assets," says a study prepared for the local economic development group Go Topeka by Austin, Texas-based Avalanche Consulting and Greenville, S.C.-based McCallum Sweeney Consulting.
"Although undernurtured at the moment, there is little standing in the way of transforming this park into a national hub for logistics," the report said of Forbes’ ability to serve as a jumping off point for the distribution of goods. "Few other communities have such enviable interstate connections and sites located alongside of a 12,500-foot commercial runway."
The consultants concluded economic development in the Topeka community has been on a slow and steady course that has generally kept pace with the U.S. economy and performed well compared to other parts of the Midwest.
However, they wrote that Topeka "is at a crossroads and has several decisions to make about its future and how it pursues economic development."
The report was an update of a targeted industry study conducted in 2008, said Steve Jenkins, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and Go Topeka. Jenkins said such studies "should be updated at least every three years to have validity, especially with the changes occurring in both the national and global economy."
Jenkins said revenue from a countywide, half-cent sales tax voters approved in 2004 was used to pay for the recent study, which cost $78,000. Ed McCallum, a senior principal at McCallum Sweeney, is the "leading site consultant in the U.S.," Jenkins said.
He said financing for the study was included in the 2010 Go Topeka budget approved by the Joint Economic Development Organization, a body of city and county elected officials that oversees use of revenue from the half-cent sales tax. Go Topeka works under contract with JEDO to administer the revenue earmarked for economic development.
Jenkins said Go Topeka put out a nationwide request for proposals from site consultants interested in conducting the targeted industry study and received nine proposals, which were ranked by a panel of six volunteers and staff members.
The finalists, Avalanche and McCallum Sweeney, put forth a study that listed several strengths they say buoy economic development here.
Those include the community's geographic location, the residents' strong work ethic, the presence in the area of major universities. and a substantial base of government and health care employment that helps the area weather economic turbulence.
But the study warned that this region was on a "middling" trend line in which it could safely stay on its current course without risk, but also without gain.
The consultants recommended the community work to "enliven a national economic development initiative" by seeking to make progress in five priority areas, which it identified as:
n Business sites. "Topeka/Shawnee County's opportunities are limited by its shortage of Class A office and industrial sites," the study said. "We are intrigued at the possibility of masterplanning Forbes Field and Kanza Fire Commerce Park properties so that they are linked thematically, with Forbes Field serving as a world-class commercial logistics hub and Kanza Fire fueling research and manufacturing activity for the region.”
n Workforce development. "Investment in quality partnerships and infrastructure will fall short of potential unless Topeka/Shawnee County radically realigns workforce training programs around the needs of 21st century companies," the study said.
n Regionalism. The study suggested Go Topeka reach out to team up in national and international marketing efforts with economic development professionals in Lawrence and Manhattan, which Jenkins said is being done.
n University partnerships. The study suggested Topeka position itself as a central hub for technologies emanating from The University of Kansas and Kansas State University and engage universities in master planning for Forbes Field and Kanza Fire Commerce Park.
n Quality of life. "Redeveloping downtown Topeka is essential," the study said. "It is no longer a problem of city government and downtown businesses, but an issue that impacts the region's ability to recruit and retain business and talented workers."
The study also recommended five broad target industries and niche sectors that hold promise to bring the region growth in terms of high-paying jobs and new investment.
It identified those as "food processing, logistics and distribution, bioscience, back office, and clean energy."
Tim Hrenchir can be reached at (785) 295-1184 or firstname.lastname@example.org.