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Vibrant. Bustling. Wait, did you say this is a story about Topeka?

With the help of new life downtown and collaboration across the community, Topeka appears to be hitting its stride after years of false starts. But challenges remain and it could take time to fully win over a populace that had significant concerns about the community’s quality of life, image and safety as recently as three years ago.

 

 

On any given day or night, Topeka’s rejuvenated downtown can be bustling.

Entrepreneurs selling high-end jewelry and art. The Pennant serving up gourmet burgers, arcade games and themed celebrations for the cocktail crowd, with The Tee Box beckoning golfers for simulated play on 140 courses from around the world. Business travelers and tourists staying at the Cyrus Hotel.

That’s not all.

When the weather warms up, Evergy Plaza features local musicians, seasonal entertainment and sports displayed on a big screen. Statues of prominent Topekans such as Harry Colmery, father of the GI Bill, and Charles Curtis, a former U.S. vice president, populate the avenue.

The Brew Bank, winner of an entrepreneurial competition staked by six community leaders, allows customers to sample a little or a lot of craft beers from across the country – ideally accompanied by charcuterie boards – in a setting that pays tribute to the state’s movie heritage. Iron Rail Brewing’s beer and barbecue are served amidst colorful murals, one depicting Cyrus K. Holliday, a city founder and railroad tycoon, and an optimistic quote from 1868: “Please inform the good people of Topeka & Shawnee County of the brilliant future awaiting them.”

A street over, The White Linen offers fine dining with a monthly prix fixe menu and The Jayhawk Theatre, a movie house where famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee once performed, bolsters its restoration efforts by booking traveling musical and comedy acts.

Wait, did you say that this is a story about Topeka?

In a community where concerns about quality of life and Topeka’s image, economy and public safety have long been pervasive, and confirmed in recent surveys, the changes being wrought downtown and beyond could represent a turning point in the narratives being told about and by the community. But it might still take time – and additional wins – for a more optimistic outlook about Topeka to fully take hold. 

One of the key origins of this metamorphosis is located just a block away from the Capitol – the Greater Topeka Partnership, an umbrella organization encompassing economic development, chamber relationships, downtown revitalization, tourism, leadership programs, equity and inclusion initiatives, and more.

Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of the partnership, took the job in December 2015. While waiting for his family to join him in 2016, Pivarnik lived downtown for a few months and lamented the lack of establishments where he could grab dinner or a beer.

“Now my wife and I come downtown on a Saturday night, and I can’t find a place to park on the street and I have to use the garage,” he says. “I love it!”

Pivarnik saw the city’s merits and potential immediately, well before many of the aforementioned enhancements and investments on Kansas Avenue and elsewhere in the community came to fruition. Fully committed, the father of three sons – one still at home then – moved not only his own family to Topeka but his mom, stepdad and in-laws too.

 

Busy city downtown street at night

Planners see Kansas Avenue as the centerpiece of a flourishing downtown Topeka. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

 

“My family’s lived all over the place,” says Pivarnik. “Although we all fell in love with Topeka right away, many people who had grown up here only saw the negatives. I was shocked by the pervasive self-loathing. There were definitely things to fix, but Topeka was a lot better than what its regional image should have been then.”

Pivarnik spent nearly 20 years in economic development roles in Tulsa, another community that’s been retooling its image, where he first met Topeka leaders at an intercity visit in 2014.

Tulsa’s depiction as a punishing business destination for a “Friends” character – and other factors that made the city “a community that people liked to think poorly of” – galvanized Pivarnik’s employer, community leaders and elected officials to move toward a coordinated, collaborative model and establish a successful young professionals program emphasizing talent recruitment and retention.

Pivarnik and the Topeka leaders who hired him imagined full-scale transformation could happen in the Capital City too. They worked with Market Street Services, the same community and economic development consulting firm Tulsa had used, to see what was possible.

“Tulsa showed me that if you put your mind to something, you can do it,” says Pivarnik. “You just have to believe.”

 

More than ‘touchy feely’

At the root of Topeka’s most recent transformation efforts is community collaboration.

In 2016, the Greater Topeka Partnership, working with the Topeka Community Foundation and the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library, formed Momentum 2022 and established a steering committee to guide a strategic initiative to better capitalize on the area’s strengths and to correct issues identified through a comprehensive county assessment undertaken by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The study, completed by 2,400 residents, cited concerns about everything from economic development and education to poverty and community pride. As a result, access to opportunity for all has been a focal point for Momentum 2022 initiatives. 

The plan’s multiple successes include Plug and Play Tech Center’s selection of Topeka as its worldwide resource center for agtech startups; creation of a Washburn Tech East campus; a $250,000 Kansas Health Foundation grant to address digital equity; attraction of a new Walmart distribution center; and extensive national media mentions for its Choose Topeka program, which provides $15,000 stipends for individuals interested in relocating here. (The Kansas Health Foundation is a key funder of the Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal.)

“We’ve been putting together a list of 100 great things that have happened in the last few years, and it’s so hard to stop at that number,” Pivarnik says.

Significant strides have been made, but Pivarnik says there are areas that still need attention. Momentum 2022’s cradle-to-career education efforts made inroads but stalled when the pandemic closed classrooms and compromised access to services. Pivarnik says riverfront development was delayed in favor of other community priorities. However, a new destination task force will soon be concentrating on this recreational resource along with expanding youth-sports programs and positioning the city as a regional host site for athletic events.

Housing availability across price ranges, types and locations continues to be an impediment as the community experiences a resurgence. In February 2022, Realtor.com listed Topeka third among its top 10 hottest housing markets, the only Midwest city named.

As with many communities, particularly post-pandemic, vacant storefronts abound downtown, in West Ridge Mall on Wanamaker Road and in strip centers across the city.

But some local and out-of-state investors are finding financial opportunities in restoring blighted commercial sectors. Two neglected strip centers along the Wanamaker corridor now have upgraded infrastructure and tenants new to the city, such as Ulta Beauty, Five Below and The Big Biscuit. Downtown investors have refurbished entire buildings for living quarters and business operations while serving as landlords for other entrepreneurs. The corner of Fairlawn Road and 29th Street, a Topeka eyesore for decades, has been refashioned into Wheatfield Village, an entertainment area occupied by Johnny’s Tavern, SPIN! Pizza, PT’s Coffee, B&B Theatres and a Springhill Suites by Marriott.

Pivarnik says some people might dismiss aesthetic and amenity enhancements as “touchy feely” in positioning the community as a desirable place to live, work and play, but he believes they’re essential to facilitating economic growth and fostering pride.

“The way our streets, neighborhoods and downtown look all form first impressions about how a community perceives itself,” he says. “Those impressions influence whether people want to live here or a company wants to relocate here, and they affect economic prosperity all the way down to neighborhoods and individual houses.”

Keith Warta, president of the civil engineering firm Bartlett & West and tri-chair of Momentum 2022 since its inception, agrees.

“Economic development is really about making your community likable for people who might want to live here,” says Warta. “We knew when we started this project that we were losing a key demographic of people between 20 and 40 and were at a critical point. Having recreational options, a cool downtown and other activities for individuals and families to enjoy are important.”

Cody Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel, a financial and insurance marketing firm, has invested heavily to imbue the city’s historic and neglected spaces with new vitality. He was instrumental in establishing the Cyrus Hotel, and his company, AIM Strategies LLC, also owns The Pennant and Iron Rail Brewing.

With Advisors Excel’s expanding workforce, the company also made a $10 million capital investment in the Gage Center, a once popular entertainment destination that had fallen into disrepair. Two-hundred positions have been relocated to the refurbished area with the capacity to accommodate more.

“The better job we can do to inject new life into older spaces, the more appealing our community becomes to others and the more benefits we’ll see, including a growing tax base and additional investment,” says Foster. “We need to keep the momentum going.”

 

Man filiming podcast

Cody Foster, co-founder of Advisors Excel, a financial and insurance marketing firm, was instrumental in establishing the Cyrus Hotel, and his company, AIM Strategies LLC, also owns The Pennant and Iron Rail Brewing. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

 

Challenges and game changers

But there are still plenty of challenges to face down. Last year’s census showed that Shawnee County had grown only slightly, and Topeka had experienced a small population drop. And Topeka’s image might itself need to be rebuilt with the kind of energy that’s evident downtown.

Addressing factors that affect Topeka’s image is essential not only for attracting new people and commercial enterprises to the community but also in assuaging established residents so they will want to stay, whether they’re starting a career or retiring from one.

A 2019 survey conducted by ETC Institute, an Olathe-based company, showed that while nationwide 75% of people surveyed were satisfied with the overall quality of life in their city, only 43% of Topekans were. Just 29% were satisfied or very satisfied with the city’s overall image compared with 64% nationwide. Only 28% were satisfied or very satisfied with Topeka’s overall appearance and its planning efforts for growth. Respondents’ score for an “overall feeling of safety” was 34%.

Interestingly enough, many of Topeka’s most vocal and visible current champions grew up elsewhere and don’t carry the baggage of the past with them. But some lifelong residents who have witnessed decades of false starts in addressing the area’s shortcomings are understandably leery, especially those who have seen children and grandchildren leave the community to pursue opportunities elsewhere because of economic and quality of life considerations.

While storefront facelifts, street maintenance initiatives and safety programs may not be enough to win over skeptics, Topeka might be able to bolster perceptions about its turnaround with hard data. Two hallmarks of the collaborative effort to provide economic prosperity for everyone and instill pride of place are evidenced by impressive statistics. 

Poverty dropped 44% over a 10-year period in Shawnee County.

“Out of 105 Kansas counties, only Saline County has had a higher improvement in this area,” Pivarnik says. “Our current score is at 10.2% and we’ll continue working to lower it.”

The community’s Net Promoter Score, a widely accepted gauge for assessing consumer perceptions used by multiple employers across the country, including Bartlett & West and other local companies, rose by more than 50%.

Enhancing access to necessities, such as groceries, health care and educational opportunities, preschool and post-secondary alike, has also been at the forefront of Momentum 2022’s strategy.

Washburn Tech East, open since 2019, facilitates professional opportunities for students previously hindered by transportation and other constraints.

Lalo Munoz, executive director of El Centro of Topeka and a city native, had long thought a Washburn Tech East campus would revitalize the area and reinvigorate residents who’d grown weary waiting for access to technical training that could enhance their earning potential at one of the area’s many manufacturing plants and distribution centers.

“It’s been a game changer,” says Munoz. “The staff members who run the campus have their hearts set on this particular mission and bend over backward to help students succeed.”

Munoz says the campus has a 95% placement rate for graduates of programs that include technology, welding and transportation.

“Employers are ready to hire these graduates and give them well-paying, highly needed, highly regarded positions that can create generational wealth,” he says. “An additional benefit is seeing residents believe in the promises and possibilities as they see things happen, including a new East Topeka council to address their concerns.”

 

Store closed sign

The story of downtown Topeka is not always one of an unstoppable renaissance. Last year, one of its most iconic downtown businesses, Wolfe’s Camera, closed after more than 95 years in business. Its devoted customers still grieve its loss. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)

 

Improving environmental conditions

Topeka Community Foundation President Marsha Pope’s aha moment happened in 2016 when the Robert Wood Johnson assessment revealed that Shawnee Countians’ health had gotten worse over time despite millions of dollars allocated through grants.

Disheartened by the findings, Pope brought together a facilitator with the Kansas Leadership Center and local leaders to learn how social determinants were impacting health.

“We discovered that 60% of a person’s physical well-being was determined by ZIP code, 20% by genetic code and 20% by health care access,” Pope says. “We can’t alter genetic code, but we can definitely make changes to improve environmental conditions.”

Pope says she can walk on sidewalks to two grocery stores in her neighborhood, whereas someone in a different section of the city may only have access to a dollar store with few healthy options and no sidewalks at all – situations that can be remedied.

The Kansas Health Foundation provided funds for the community foundation to learn about local impact investing, resulting in new guidelines and policies around the process to facilitate widespread change.

In addition to making grants for community betterment programs, the community foundation is now deploying 1% of its $100 million portfolio toward loans addressing social determinants. Initial loans have been made to establish an early education center in the Hi-Crest neighborhood, affordable housing for seniors, a grocery store in a food desert and an entrepreneurial center to support the business aspirations of underserved individuals. Another loan will assist Habitat for Humanity in helping individuals convert deeds into mortgages through which equity can be passed to heirs to begin building generational wealth.

“When you start with a mission focused on health, hope, happiness and economic prosperity for all, you create a feeling of possibility and positivity,” says Pope, who drinks her morning coffee in a Topeka mug and enjoys seeing citizens wearing apparel and flying flags in front of their homes with the city’s distinctive imprints.

But even popular efforts to bolster the community’s self-image don’t always land the same with everyone.

The new Topeka flag, an initiative led by Forge, Topeka’s young professionals organization, pays homage to the previous city flag that a 13-year-old Eagle Scout created in 1977 by incorporating its predecessor’s yellow and green colors. Some residents wanted to preserve the old flag, even though it was rarely used outside of official channels or reproduced for promotional purposes.

Others have wholeheartedly embraced the change. The new flag, voted on by Topeka residents from three finalists, is now used throughout the community by entrepreneurs who have free rein and access to a logo derived from the design for placement on merchandise and signage. A dentist’s office recently incorporated the flag motif into its logo, and several new businesses representing tech, athletic, nutrition, music, entertainment, floral and soda pop services have Top City in their names, a tribute to city efforts to elevate pride.

Pope says in years past Topeka’s business leaders and elected officials weren’t ready to tackle “the hard work being done now to provide positive changes across the board. Linking economic and community development has elevated all of our efforts by bringing people together who could show how they fit with the strategy to holistically change systems, policies and environments instead of working independently. Our community hadn’t experienced anything like that before.”

According to Warta, “We had decades of self-doubt and negativity. Before we had the Greater Topeka Partnership, everything was fragmented. Now we have the right group of business leaders and elected officials committed to collaboratively making the community and the region better. Plug and Play especially has the greatest potential of any accomplishment the past five years to elevate our community in a unique way. The stars seem aligned for Topeka and Shawnee County.”

In April 2022, for the first time, Topeka and Lawrence business leaders and elected officials embarked on a joint intercity visit to northwest Arkansas, a Plug and Play vector for transportation and logistics with a similar partnership model and a coined attitude of “cooperatition,” says Pivarnik.

He broached the joint visit with Bonnie Lowe, president and CEO of the Lawrence Chamber, over beers. 

“For whatever reason, Lawrence and Topeka decided years ago that they didn’t like each other, and both communities have been less successful because of that,” says Pivarnik. “Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan – we’ve all come to the conclusion that whatever successes come to the region help us all and whatever negative things happen to any community are bad for all of us too. We need to celebrate each other to succeed.”

The willingness to collaborate both inside and outside of the community is expected to continue to pay dividends.

“Matt’s ability to bring people to the table and rally them not to build walls but to break them down is really at the center of this effort,” says Warta. “Now communities all over the country are calling us to learn more about our innovative approaches and intentions to lift everyone up, not just certain segments of our community.”

Foster has lived in Topeka for 27 years. “I’ve never seen the positive momentum we have right now. We have so many great people in leadership roles that are putting their egos aside to try and make Topeka the best city it can be. Nobody seems to care who gets the credit, only that success is achieved.”

When the next five-year plan rolls out in 2023, the community expects to embed equity and inclusion into every aspect of the vision. A new steering committee will comprise not only CEOs, elected officials and nonprofit representatives but also high school students and young professionals to better reflect community composition.

“What excites me most about this next phase is the acknowledgment that Topeka can only be as prosperous as the least of any of us, and that’s the measurement we’ll use to grade ourselves as we move ahead,“ says Munoz.

For Pivarnik, metrics and outcomes matter but he also treasures simple observations of community connection that signify success.

“Seeing people of all ages, income levels and backgrounds engaging in conversations and coming together to enjoy one another’s company in fun places shows me how far we’ve come and gives me hope for how far we can still go,” he says. 

Even so, it could take awhile for perceptions of Topeka to change enough that it stops being the butt of jokes for some in the region and across the country.

In 2019, late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert poked fun at the partnership’s Choose Topeka program, suggesting that the city’s current residents remained only because they had run out of gas.

But Topekans are taking such humor in stride, rather than letting it get to them. A local ad agency capitalized on the attention with a humorous commercial showing revelers inside the Brew Bank with a pile of empty gas cans in the corner. Another entrepreneur created T-shirts: “Topeka, Kansas: A Great Place to Run Outta’ Gas.”

Pivarnik, who has one son attending Washburn University and another working as an engineer and raising a family in Topeka, is thrilled with the collective gains made and undaunted by doubters.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” says Pivarnik. “We’re resourceful and resilient and we’re not going to run out of gas in helping Topeka and its residents reach their potential.” 

 

Cars driving at sunset in small town Kansas

A version of this article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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