Shawnee County, Kan. has adapted its moving incentive program to attract newly remote workers to relocate to the county.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ October jobs report, 21 percent or 1 in 5 of employed individuals nationwide are teleworking because of the coronavirus pandemic.
With this in mind, Shawnee County is building upon its already established moving incentive program to bring teleworking individuals who now have the option to relocate to the county.
Go Topeka, an economic development agency, launched the Choose Topeka incentive program last year to attract individuals to move to Shawnee County.
The Joint Economic Development Organization (JEDO), a partnership between the county and city governments, is overseeing the program. Go Topeka is funded by a portion of economic development dollars from a half-cent county sales tax.
The Choose Topeka incentive program matches performance-based incentives by partnering with employers. Incentives are available after an employee has moved to the county and range from up to $10,000 for individuals renting and up to $16,000 for individuals purchasing a home.
The cost of the incentive is shared equally between Go Topeka/JEDO and an individual’s employer with both paying 50 percent of the incentive. If the employer retains the employee beyond one year, Go Topeka/JEDO will reimburse the employer 50 percent of their initial contribution.
Barbara Stapleton, Go Topeka’s vice president of Talent Attraction, who is also the architect of the Choose Topeka program, said it started as a way to help employers recruit and retain employees.
According to Stapleton, Go Topeka found that 40 percent of those who work in Topeka and make over $40,000 per year did not live in Shawnee County.
“We were looking at ‘How do we generate that interest, for employees to live and work in the community in which they work for?’” Stapleton said.
JEDO approved the Choose Topeka program in December 2019 and saw high interest, with more than 4,000 individuals submitting resumes or inquiring about the program.
But when the pandemic hit and many people began teleworking, Stapleton said they knew they needed to alter the program to target remote workers to come to Shawnee County.
“The pandemic has changed how things look and how people may shift,” she said.
JEDO approved a percentage of the funding previously allocated for the Choose Topeka program to add a remote aspect to the initiative. Through the program, employees who work for a company outside of Shawnee County can receive up to a $10,000 incentive for purchasing a home or up to a $5,000 incentive for renting in Shawnee County.
Since launching in September, there have been 40 applications.
Interested individuals are required to submit an application, document and validate their current residency, prove their full-time employment and provide a remote work authorization form from their employer that validates the employer is supportive of them working remotely. After they meet the requirements with the forms, they schedule an interview with JEDO’s review committee.
Five remote workers have completed the interview process and will be the first group to complete the program from start to finish.
Shawnee County Commissioner Kevin Cook, who currently serves as the chair of JEDO, said since Choose Topeka had a large response and interested number of applicants when the program launched in 2019, they wanted to expand it to adjust to the current circumstances.
“With the pandemic that hit, we saw that there was a change in how people work,” he said. “That’s where we adapted the Choose Topeka program to also include remote workers attracting them to relocate to Topeka and Shawnee County.”
Just 15 miles outside of the county seat and state capital of Topeka, Cook said there are rural areas with aspects that many people who have the option to work remotely find appealing.
“Until very recently, our numbers of COVID-19 infection were a lot lower than what you might find on the East and West coasts, and I think that’s what really kind of drew a lot of people’s attention,” he said.
Cook also mentioned the lower cost of living in the county and Midwest region compared to other areas of the country.
“Maybe they hadn’t considered moving to the Midwest or to Topeka or Kansas before and then when you have an economic incentive that you can have reimbursement of moving expenses or purchase of your home, that suddenly may push you over the edge to that being a deciding factor in where you want to live,” he said.
Cook said the city-county partnership through JEDO has been beneficial in boosting the county’s economic development and noted that when people and businesses relocate to the area, it benefits the entire community.
“It really has had the ability to attract higher wage jobs that are in areas that we might not otherwise be able to fill,” Cook said, “and since they’re able to work remotely, they’re able to fill that gap and also contribute toward the overall economy of the community.”