Headline - How I Built It - Choose Topeka an interview with Barbara Stapleton

Jun 29, 2021

The Engineer Behind Tokepa's Remote Incentive Program

By Christie Luther Hurst, MakeMyMove Staff

An interview with Barbara Stapleton, VP of Business Retention and Talent Initiatives at the Greater Topeka Partnership about the remote relocation program she built, just in time for Covid.


In 2016, long before Covid would reshape the day to day routines of much of the American workforce, staff at the Greater Topeka Partnership (Topeka’s umbrella agency for the city’s economic development initiatives including Downtown Topeka Inc, The Greater Topeka Chamber, and Visit Topeka) were embarking upon a 5-year strategic planning initiative.


As VP of Business Retention and Talent Initiatives, Barbara Stapleton was a key engineer and stakeholder of the effort - and a relative newcomer to the organization, herself. Preparations for the planning initiative led her team to the discovery that 40% of Topeka’s workforce with an annual income greater than $40k lived outside of Shawnee County, meaning their tax dollars were not supporting the infrastructure they relied on for their daily commutes.


“We didn’t set out to start a remote worker incentive program originally,” Stapleton recalls. Instead, the Greater Topeka Partnership (GTP), intended to recruit and relocate critical and hard to fill positions for local businesses, rewarding the new hires with relocation incentives for properties inside Shawnee County. Stapleton and her team began researching matching grant programs from which to build a model.


At the time, Stapleton didn’t find examples of the matching programs she was looking for, but she did discover two remote worker incentive programs, one in Vermont that was state-funded and one in Tulsa (Tulsa Remote) that was funded through the George Kaiser Family Foundation. Taking a cue from their program design and documented results, she incorporated remote workers into GTP’s talent attraction program planning.


Stapleton did her homework in order to justify a $300k ask for an initial recruitment campaign. “Out of town moves require a certain amount of liquidity,” she learned. “Moving expenses for a 1-2 bedroom apartment could be as much as $7,000, and it’s more like $15,000 for a 4-bedroom home depending on the distance.” She also worked with the Partnership’s staff economist to anticipate the value that new recruits would add to their local economy. “After looking at all the data, we arrived at a conservative estimate,” says Stapleton, who, even conservatively, anticipated a 6x ROI in the first year. (Her estimate is conservative in part because it only accounts for trailing partners who are self-reported and does not consider additional friends and family who have followed, though she knows that to be an additional benefit.)


“That data gave us what we needed to justify the upfront investment,” she says.



The first Choose Topeka campaign launched in December 2019 with the goal of recruiting 25 remote workers and 25 “employee match” hires. “This is a measured, longer term strategy that we’re deploying. We’re not trying to recruit thousands of people overnight,” Stapleton says, adding “I don’t know of any communities that have the housing stock to support that anyway.”


What’s awarded to “On Site” recipients:


  • Up to $10K in funds for renting in the first year

  • Up to $15K in funds for home purchase

  • Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches will add a $1,000 bonus for candidates who relocate into one of their three Topeka sandwich delivery zones



What’s awarded to “Remote” recipients:


  • Up to $5K in funds for renting in the first year

  • up to $10K in funds for home purchase

  • Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches will add a $1,000 bonus for candidates who relocate into one of their three Topeka sandwich delivery zones



“Our employee match program is tied very heavily to employment,” Stapleton says. “Employers must submit an application in order to receive matching dollars and they must employ the recipient for one full year.” The program was designed with varying match levels in order to accommodate small business hires as well as large corporations. There is no extensive vetting of employee match applicants, she says. “We figured that would govern itself through the employer’s hiring process. With limited funds, employers will offer incentives only to their most in-demand candidates.”


As for remote workers, “Basically, we need to know that they can live on their own comfortably,” requiring proof of residency, salary and benefits. The volunteer committee tasked with reviewing applications is a mix of board members from the various GTP organizations and GTP staff. “After we receive and review the initial application, we ask for supporting documents, then we schedule interviews and confirm remote flexibility with their employer directly,” she explains. Remembering a close call, Stapleton shares that, “We hated to have to tell one candidate that she was going to be expected back in the office last year and therefore ineligible for the incentive. But we saved the candidate and ourselves a lot of time, money and trouble with that extra step.”



Instagram-worthy mural in downtown Topeka


So how’s it going? Stapleton reports that they received a second round of funding after tracking an 11.4x ROI in the first year and an average income among recruits nearing $85k.


“So far it’s been an overwhelming success,” says Stapleton. “We’re bringing new people to the talent pool who are excited to be here and contribute to the community. They’re bringing their families, they’re restoring property, they’re 100% incremental.”


Fully confident in what Topeka has to offer to remote workers, Stapleton welcomes additional incentive programs to the market. She’s not at all worried there might be a shortage of quality candidates. “Not everyone is going to be the right fit for Topeka. We’re looking for people who really want to be here and be part of our special community” she says. “This (MakeMyMove.com) helps people find the place that’s right for them.”

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