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AEDO Profile: GO Topeka, Kansas
Eli Dile   on Monday, June 18, 2018 at 9:01:00 am

By Eli Dile and Tim Grey, IEDC Intern, University of Sydney

IEDC’s Accredited Economic Development Organization (AEDO) program recognizes the professional excellence of organizations in the areas of internal and external operations, structures, and procedures. This series profiles newly accredited AEDOs, putting some of economic development’s highest-performing organizations in the spotlight.

AEDO member: GO Topeka, Kansas

Accreditation date: January 2018.

Distinctions: GO Topeka is the second AEDO in Kansas.

Organizational structure: GO Topeka is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit corporation and a public/private partnership between the Joint Economic Development Organization (JEDO) of the City of Topeka and Shawnee County and is governed by a board of directors. The JEDO includes the City of Topeka’s mayor, city council, and Shawnee County commissioners.  The private-sector board members are nominated by the executive committee and elected by investors.

Leadership and staff: President and CEO Matt Pivarnik leads a staff of 11 employees.

Mission: “Create exceptional opportunities for growth, prosperity, innovation, economic diversity, and vibrancy that positively impact current and future citizens of Topeka and Shawnee County by attracting world-class companies, providing existing companies with the knowledge and resources to reach their highest potential, and cultivating entrepreneurial development and growth.”

Population of area served: 178,514.

Budget: $5 million for FY17.

Key focus/primary service areas: GO Topeka’s strategic plan hinges on five goals: developing homegrown talent, creating vibrant and attractive places, growing a diverse economy, promoting a positive image, and collaborating for a strong community. Each goal is guided by several strategic objectives.

Highlighted accomplishments:

  • Mars Chocolate – a $55 million capital investment in 2017, adding 60 full-time jobs and 50 part-time jobs.
  • Reser’s Fine Foods – an $86.5 million investment in new facilities and rehabilitation of an existing plant in 2016, adding 180 jobs.
  • Project Leaf – revitalization of a downtown building through a $2.4 million investment, creating 62 jobs with an average salary of $52,000.

Q&A with Go Topeka President and CEO Matt Pivarnik and Molly Howey, senior VP of economic development

What does your organization do particularly well?

Howey: Over the past few years, our focus has been on collaboration across all sectors of the city: public, private, philanthropy, and education. Economic development organizations have to be conveners, and we are asking the community to join in the strategic planning process and tell us what economic development means for our unique community. Of course we want to create jobs and investment, but we’re looking at things on a much deeper level. Instead of the traditional approach, we engaged all cross-sections of the community to define economic development in Topeka and lay out a five-year plan: Momentum 2020. Everyone is talking about this plan – all the mayoral candidates and everyday citizens. We’re not a public agency, so city leadership isn’t beholden to it, but they’ve really embraced it.

What unique programs or initiatives does your organization carry out?

Howey: As with most communities, one of our major pain points is workforce. We’re at between 3.5 and 4 percent unemployment, so we’ve ramped up our talent retention and attraction initiatives. We were pretty forward-thinking, especially for a community of our size and region, to break off workforce from our existing business department. We used to have one person doing retention and expansion, and workforce, but those are now two dedicated departments. We have one person now dedicated to a “cradle to career” program, working with the school system to get educators thinking about career development from an early age.

Pivarnik: We also created the Top City Interns program, in partnership with Topeka’s young professionals group, which is a community-wide internship program we started last year. We have close to 200 interns working across various Topeka companies, and we hope to attract and retain our future workforce with this program.

Another unique feature of our organization is our small business incentive program. It’s designed to give small businesses financial support on par with what typically large employers would only qualify for. We want all businesses to recognize that you don’t have to be a major employer to utilize the services of an EDO.

Why did you decide to pursue AEDO accreditation?

Pivarnik: We’re always looking for ways to improve. We wanted to know what we’re doing right and what we could improve upon. It was a little scary to jump into that, but it’s a healthy process to do that kind of evaluation and find out what you need to do to grow. I came from an AEDO in Tulsa, so I had already been through the process and definitely wanted to test ourselves when I took the job here. Once you’ve been in an AEDO organization, you know it really is the gold standard.

A lot of times people are afraid to go through the certification process for fear of failure, but I always encourage people to go for it. If you don’t get it the first time, they will show you a pathway to accreditation. Don’t let fear of failure keep you from pursuing accreditation.

What feedback from the AEDO Review Team did you find particularly helpful, and how do you plan to implement their recommendations?

Pivarnik: One of the positive pieces of feedback we received was for the unity among our community, as evidenced by Momentum 2020. They were impressed with the common language and goals across all sectors of the community.

An opportunity for improvement they identified was with our entrepreneurship program. Our attraction, BRE, and workforce programs we feel really good about, but the review team thought we could put more emphasis on entrepreneurship. By the time they left, we felt good about where we’re heading, and we now have a plan in place to address that.

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