It's been more than three decades since McLean, Va.-based Mars Inc. has built a new chocolate factory in the United States. In August, the privately owned maker of Snickers and M&M's broke ground on a 350,000-square-foot manufacturing facility -- in Topeka, Kan.
At first blush, Topeka might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of chocolate manufacturing. But during the Aug. 23 groundbreaking of the company's new facility in Topeka, executives from Mars made it clear that the two are as natural a fit as caramel and nougat.
Or milk chocolate and peanuts.
"I look out, and there are about 500 people here at 8 a.m.," said Todd Lachman, president of Mars Chocolate North America and Latin America, who was flanked by costumed M&M characters.
"...It's this type of turnout, and this type of dedication and commitment, that had us call Kansas our new home for Mars."
It wasn't just the responsiveness of economic development officials, or the rapport between the company and the community, that made Topeka a sweet spot for Mars. The new Kanza Fire Commerce Park -- where Mars eventually landed -- helped seal the deal.
"For some on our engineering team, it was love at first sight when they saw this piece of property," declared Mark Broadhurst, director of public affairs for Mars.
There's a lot to love about the megapark, says Doug Kinsinger, president and CEO of the Topeka Chamber of Commerce and the GO Topeka Economic Partnership.
With new roads and utilities, the Kanza Fire Commerce Park boasts 1,018 acres of "shovel-ready land with all the infrastructure in place," Kinsinger says.
Some 6,000 linear feet of rail line skirts the eastern border of the park, and a new interchange to U.S. Highway 75 runs through the heart of the property.
Logistics, however, isn't the only selling point. The Go Topeka Economic Partnership markets the megapark as the ideal site "for discerning companies seeking a green address."
Kinsinger points out that the park's 130 acres of shared green space and walking trails -- as well as areas set aside for shared alternative-energy installations -- are "all things that we believe companies of the future would want."
To his point: When Mars finishes construction of its new facility, the company plans to seek LEED Gold certification. The chocolate maker also has a provision in its contract that says it will give back a portion of its tax abatement to help fund shared alternative-energy sources for the park, Kinsinger notes.
"It's being spec'ed right now whether to put in wind or solar," Kinsinger says.
The Kanza Fire Commerce Park is the newer of two industrial parks in Topeka. The 550-acre Central Crossing Commerce Park, which is home to a Bimbo Bakeries manufacturing facility as well as distribution centers for Target and Home Depot, has around 80 acres left, prompting local officials to begin developing the Kanza Fire park in late 2009.
Beyond the new park's green appeal, Kinsinger believes manufacturers will flock to it for similar reasons that companies such as Frito-Lay, Goodyear, Hallmark and Hill's Pet Nutrition have a major presence in Topeka.
"The city boasts quality schools, friendly people, good hospitals, a university and-one of its biggest selling points-low housing costs," Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine wrote when it named Topeka one of its "10 Best Cities for the Next Decade" in 2010.
Kinsinger notes that a change to the state's tax law in 2006 exempted new machinery and equipment from personal property taxes, which "helped open the floodgates of new investment."
Says Kinsinger: "We're very upbeat about the future."