Investing in our people to get the most out of our city

Investing in our people to get the most out of our city
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Serving as the mayor of a capital city is not only a privilege, it’s a learning adventure every day. In the heart of America, where the population is either stagnant or dwindling, managing the needs of residents and delivering exceptional service is a task of both innovation and reinvention. One of the biggest changes in recent years is the way we analyze data usage to make more informed decisions on behalf of our residents. 

Cities across the country are struggling with the same issues: infrastructure repairs (water lines/mains and roads), economic mobility and equity, improving quality of place and life for residents, and ensuring public safety is delivered justly and equitably. 

In a time when overall government approval is at a low, city government still enjoys a different perception by our residents. We live, eat out, buy groceries, worship, and work alongside our constituents. It is much easier to keep communication lines open. We work to respect the vision and vitality in those in the 50-plus age range in our communities, and connect them to the vision and energy of millennials we are attracting to Topeka. However, this doesn’t make having difficult conversations about the issues that impact us every day any easier.

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As a community in the Midwest, we are diving deep into conversations about equity, understanding systems, and improving the economic mobility of our most underserved families. As the home of Brown v. Board of Education, we know all too well the need to commit to challenging conversations that help leaders and policymakers understand that poverty is, too often, not a choice. The myth of legitimacy that “all we need to do is work hard to get ahead” is something many in our community are learning is not so. We need to be deliberate about inclusiveness on all fronts, including race, income levels and our elderly, who are living longer and have much to contribute.

Topeka is rich with good paying jobs. Our unemployment is touted as a glowing 3.1 percent. Yet, few people discuss the underemployment crisis many of our families are facing. We have been engaging our community to understand all the barriers to gainful employment, with surprising results.

With this exploratory mindset and significant input from our community, we have installed a few technical fixes to alleviate some of the larger, adaptive challenges we face. In the realm of workforce development, we partnered with our local university and established a tech school in the center of one of our most underserved neighborhoods. As we know, sometimes it’s difficult to dream about something we have never been exposed to. This beacon of opportunity was not established in this neighborhood because of what it represents, but because of the significant transportation challenges families living in this neighborhood face. For example, in order to get to the original campus at Washburn Tech, students would have to travel close to an hour each way due to indirect bus routes. Now, they can walk around the corner.

Yes, transportation is a significant issue to overcome when you are looking to gain access to stronger employment. In our community, an entry-level job at our large manufacturing and distribution employers pays over $15 an hour, but workers typically start on second or third shift. Our bus system does not operate 24/7 due to low ridership and limited resources (based on a tax structure with no population increases). Although the city has done much to add sidewalks, bikeways, and other multimodal alternatives, traveling outdoors in 20-degree weather at night is not a reasonable proposition.

The City of Topeka, in partnership with Shawnee County through our Joint Economic Development Organization (JEDO), and the Greater Topeka Partnership (the economic development arm of the community), has developed a pilot program called NETO and SOTO in partnership with the Topeka Metro to subsidize rides to work via taxi. For $5 a ride — equal to less than one hour of work — you can get to and from work safely and reliably. Thousands of rides have been purchased using this program. We also encourage carpooling.

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Another approach involves working with our school district and employers to provide meaningful job shadow and internship opportunities for youth. Topeka Public Schools has established the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers, a program where students as early as 9th grade can receive experiential learning in partnership with our local industries including advanced systems, health sciences, public safety, robotics and marketing.

We are attempting some innovative tactics to grow our population. A few weeks ago, Stephen ColbertStephen Tyrone ColbertColbert asks Rahm Emanuel: 'Are you here tonight to kneecap Bernie Sanders?' The Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats set for critical debate in New Hampshire Sanders casts Buttigieg as billionaire favorite in fight for New Hampshire MORE claimed that the only people living in Topeka were those who ran out of gas on their way to anywhere else. In less than 24 hours, one of our thriving marketing agencies responded with an ad demonstrating Topeka was “a great place to run out of gas.” Many of our young people are feeling the energy of what we are doing in our community. In an attempt to entice individuals who commute to Topeka to live here as well, we analyzed the return on investment of providing a modest moving incentive. JEDO approved a pool of $300,000 to match employers who offer such an incentive. Now, someone who buys a home in the city and lives here for a year will have the opportunity to receive up to $15,000. As we grow our working population, we are increasing the tax base and adding revenue for additional programs without increasing taxes.

This is Topeka in a nutshell. We are doing all we can with limited resources to rewrite our story. What no one can deny, is that all Topekans — young and old — are getting involved in shaping the future of our community. Our high school youth are interacting with both employed and retired leaders. We are protecting those who are stable, successful and employed by investing in quality of life and place, and empowering families seeking to move from poverty to full sustainability. As mayor, I want every citizen to have the ability to discover their God-given abilities and use them to contribute to our community.

There is a place for everyone in Topeka. Our diversity, low cost of living, and the sense of community we enjoy make me proud to represent our city. We are still dealing with improvements to our roads, water lines and public safety, but we know that if we invest in our people, the rest will follow.

De La Isla is mayor of Topeka, Kan.