Topeka's levees aren't up to modern standards, and some local officials are worried that will keep potential new employers away from downtown.
When the levees were constructed in the late 1950s or early 1960s, it was considered a good construction practice to include wooden parts underneath concrete floodwalls, Topeka utilities superintendent Don Rankin said. Over the decades, that wood started to rot, and while the levees aren't in imminent danger of failing, they do result in higher flood insurance premiums for businesses in the area that would be affected if the Kansas River were to flood in the future, he said.
"It doesn't mean in a flood they're going to necessarily fail," he said. "They may have a higher risk of failure in a true 100-year event."
The Army Corps of Engineers has been working on an updated design, Rankin said, but right now federal money isn't available for construction. An estimate in the Corps of Engineers' 2009 feasibility and environmental impact assessment put the cost of redoing the levees at about $21 million, he said, though it may be higher now because the cost of some construction materials has risen.
The issue came up Tuesday morning at a forum the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce held with Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran. Moran, a Republican, said Congress hasn't passed a bill appropriating money for this type of project by the Army Corps of Engineers for several years, but that he would continue to work to get the levees repaired.
Under the 2009 plan, federal money would pay for about 65 percent of the cost of the new levees, and the city would contribute about $8 million for the rest of the cost. The city has been saving toward the $8 million goal, Rankin said, but the council may have to decide whether to keep holding out for federal funds or to attempt to raise the entire $21 million itself.
Doug Kinsinger, president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and Go Topeka, said the cost of flood insurance along the Kansas River presents a challenge when attempting to attract companies to vacant properties near downtown.
"We've lost a major employer, and it's going to be more difficult to bring in a new employer," he said.
Hallmark spokeswoman Julie O'Dell said insurance was just one part of each plant's fixed costs, and fixed costs were one of several factors Hallmark weighed in deciding how to consolidate its operations.
"You can't just single out one piece," she said. "It was one factor of many."
Preparing for floods may not seem urgent when Kansas is in a drought, and the river is at such a low level, Rankin said, but it takes about one year to build levees, so communities need to be ready before clouds start to gather.
"If you're not prepared ahead of time, you're not going to do much" to prevent flood damage, he said.