Business Hall of Fame: Neil Dobler

By Lisa Loewen
Photos by Rachel Lock Photography

Neil Dobler“During my career, hard working people around me have made me look good.  Those people are the ones who truly deserve this honor.  People at the City work without a lot of recognition.  They could make more money elsewhere, but they choose to stay where they are because they want to make a difference in the community.”  
– Neil Dobler

Neil Dobler never planned on living in Topeka. He wanted to live in Kansas City. All he knew about Topeka was the view he caught from I-70 on his way through to somewhere else. When an unexpected change in plans landed him in a Topeka engineering office, he took it in stride. What did he have to lose? He would just move to Kansas City after he had couple of years experience under his belt. That was almost 30 years ago. Neil never moved out of Topeka because he fell in love with the community.

His love affair with Topeka really began when a civil engineering position opened up at the City. He took the position, completely unaware at the time where that decision would eventually take him. Neil immediately became enamored with the projects he was involved with on a daily basis.

“It was gratifying to know that I was responsible for things that touch people every day,” Neil said. “It’s the water department, the street department, the fire department—the basic things a community needs to survive.”

While Neil relished his position with the City, eventually even rising to deputy director of public works, he knew his potential for growth was limited at the time, so he made the difficult choice to move into the private sector. However, about five years after leaving the City, he once again found it calling his name.

Butch Felker, who was mayor during Neil’s first stint working for the City, decided to run again. He called Neil and asked him to be public works director if Felker won the election.

“I didn’t think he had a chance, frankly, so I said ‘sure, I’ll do that,”’ Neil laughed.

Much to Neil’s surprise, Felker won, so Neil made good on his promise. A lot happened during the next five years. The focus shifted to infrastructure and economic development. Lack of funding prompted a discussion about potential revenue sources, and Neil played an instrumental role in gaining passage of the Joint Economic Development Organization’s half-cent sales tax in 2004. That tax changed what the City was able to accomplish, especially regarding large infrastructure projects including the Topeka Boulevard bridge and Wanamaker Road.

“I really enjoyed that process because it felt like I was doing some vital things to make the community better,” Neil said.

When Topekans voted to shift from a strong mayor to a city manager form of government in 2005, Neil agreed to take on the responsibility of acting city manager until a permanent replacement was found.

While he found the bureaucratic side of government frustrating, Neil enjoyed the challenge of trying to figure out how to make things happen.

“If you can’t figure out how to be creative inside the rules and regulations, then you can’t succeed,” Neil said.

On the flip side, Neil found that at some point politics and regulations begin to drive so much of the decision-making process that you can’t continue to affect change.

After four years as public works director and a year as city manager, Neil found himself a little burned out and in need of a change.

“You just know going into a government position with a higher level of authority, that you can only stay in it five or six years before you will have to move—either to another community or to another career path,” Neil said.

Because he was hopelessly in love with Topeka, moving to another community wasn’t an option for Neil. Instead, he chose another career path— with Bartlett & West.

“Bartlett and West gave me the opportunity to stay oriented in the engineering business and still maintain my ability to affect change in the community,” Neil said.

His 10 years at Bartlett & West have reinvigorated Neil and reinforced his love for Topeka. And the time away from the public sector has made him contemplate what the future might hold for him. While he doesn’t plan to retire any time soon, he does admit that 10 years from now he might run for local office.

“I don’t want to just quit and go play golf—probably because I’m not a very good golfer,” Neil said. “I want to take the last part of my career and devote it to public service.”

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“Neil has a deep passion for the ‘business of Topeka’ and understands the need for both successful businesses and effective government. He’s been a leader in both.”
– Keith Warta Bartlett & West

“Neil is committed to improving the city of Topeka and has worked to gain community support for projects moving Topeka forward.”
– Larry Wolgast Mayor of Topeka

2016 Laureates:

Andrew Corbin

Neil Dobler

Dick Pratt

Eugene Williams