Building Momentum: How Public-Private Partnership Revitalized Downtown Topeka, Kansas

by Kristin Harlow

The city of Topeka has built significant momentum in the five years since its downtown revitalization. Capital investment and strategic planning at the city’s center had a reverberating effect across town, from the expansion of vocational-technical training to the growth of Kanza Fire Commerce Park.

Public-private partnership

The year 2015 was pivotal with a $9.4 million public-private investment in infrastructure and amenities along Kansas Avenue, the main downtown thoroughfare. The city invested $5.8 million in roadway, sewer and streetscape infrastructure. Meanwhile, private businesses sponsored pocket parks with statues, benches and fountains. The Downtown Topeka Foundation brought another $4 million in private funding to the effort through its “Imagine Downtown” capital campaign.

Keith Warta, Bartlett & West

Since that day, local investors like AIM Strategies LLC have purchased more than 25 buildings on the avenue for gradual restoration into thriving businesses like Iron Rail Brewing, Cyrus Hotel and The Pennant restaurant, bowling alley and vintage arcade. Popular annual festivals and parades expect to see even more traffic after the unveiling of the next phase of major downtown investment.

Evergy Plaza

With 30-foot digital screens and the 50-foot CapFed On 7th Stage, Evergy Plaza was developed as a hub for community and a catalyst for business. The $10 million, one-acre development will feature a splash park during summer and ice skating during winter, with choreographed, lighted fountain shows at night.

Originally set to debut in March, Evergy Plaza’s grand opening has been postponed pending the resolution of the COVID-19 health crisis. Ultimately, the plaza is expected to bring even more attention and energy to Topeka’s downtown scene.

“It will be very unique,” says Vince Frye, president and CEO of Downtown Topeka Inc. “It will be available to all Topekans, because downtown is a place for everybody.”

The path forward

Even prior to the onset of COVID-19, Greater Topeka Partnership (GTP) economic development agency implemented incentives to drive local business. One such initiative, Choose Topeka, partners with Shawnee County employers to offer professionals up to $15,000 for their employment-related relocation to Topeka and Shawnee County.

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred an additional program called HOST, or “Helping Others Support Topeka.” Private sector leaders developed the small business emergency resource fund through individual donations, with a commitment by the City/County Joint Economic Development Organization to match private funding up to $1 million. The resources are specifically designed to benefit workers who are displaced as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Along with supporting businesses across town, GTP’s initiatives will help bolster hospitality-centric downtown businesses hard hit by the pandemic. The story of downtown Topeka’s success was built over time and built to last. It’s a story that belongs to everyone and a story that will continue well into the future.

“The revitalization of downtown Topeka is a success story that has captured the attention of many in the region,” says Matt Pivarnik, CEO of Greater Topeka Partnership.

“In just a few short years, life has been restored to historic Kansas Avenue with new restaurants, retail, a hotel and civic venues. The impact of COVID-19 has caused a temporary pause in our efforts, but I am confident the momentum that we achieved will continue in the years to come.”

— By Keith Warta, President, Bartlett & West; Board Chair, Greater Topeka Partnership. This article was originally written for the May 2020 issue of Heartland Real Estate Business magazine. 

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