Topeka native and longtime Washburn University faculty member takes over as NOTO executive director

Thomas Underwood was raised in North Topeka. His family owned a house there, and he recalls fondly visiting N. Kansas Avenue to get his hair cut, visit Ben Franklin’s and stopping by Elkin’s Drugstore for treats.

 

Now, a few decades later, Underwood is returning to the building his father used to work at — the old post office at 935 N. Kansas Ave., to serve as the executive director of the NOTO Arts District.

“After an extensive search, we couldn’t be more excited to welcome Dr. Underwood to this vital role,” said Dan Schultz, board chairman of the NOTO Arts District. “We believe his leadership skills, and deep NOTO roots, is just what’s needed to propel the district to the next level.”

Underwood began as executive director on Oct. 16, filling the position that’s been vacant for about five months. Since then, NOTO has continued to evolve, with updated renderings of the proposed Redbud Gardens, Final Friday celebrations every month and the steady stream of businesses entering and leaving the district.

It’s a big role to fill but one Underwood is confident he can succeed in.

“A big priority I’ve had is getting out and meeting people,” Underwood said. “Just prior to this (meeting), I was talking to Stevenson’s Metal Works around the corner. My goal is to talk to every business owner in this area, regardless of what their focus is.”

One of the biggest challenges of this role seems to be uniting the goals of board members with those of the community, artists, shop owners and service industries that make up the district — not an easy task.

Underwood said he spent 24 years at Washburn University, working in the academic outreach program developing professional education programs, and continuing leadership and organizational development throughout his department. He also offered consultations, process improvement, project management and support for the university with many of its special projects.

Using his sociology and criminal justice degree prior to his work at Washburn, he’s applied his skills in private, public and nonprofit environments.

What all this means, basically, is Underwood has experience working with multiple groups of people at once, and collaborating and moving projects and goals forward until they’ve reached fruition.

“I have one of those positions here where the title sounds pretty cool, but the reality is I have no authority whatsoever — I don’t,” Underwood explained, with a laugh. “Anything I want to do is through collaborating and connecting people and trying to lead a vision. And it’s only going to be successful if I can get people on the same page, or if they’re willing to be on the same page.”

With that mindset, Underwood said he has started talking to the service industries in North Topeka, such as Stevenson’s, Larry’s Glass, Warner Electric, Ace Plumbing Heating &A/C and others.

“Most of these businesses have been here for decades, and they were here when this area was very much ignored, so they’re a part of it,” Underwood said. “And part of my goal is connecting with everybody to identify challenges — what’s good, what’s working, what could maybe be improved and how can we align.”

At the root of their differences, Underwood explained the people of NOTO are similar in that everyone wants a pleasant environment, one supportive and beneficial to their business, and for people to enjoy themselves when they come to visit.

Starting with the core problems, Underwood said some of his first priorities are addressing two main infrastructure issues in NOTO: parking and public facilities. As he continued, Underwood also explained service vehicles coming and going from businesses are a problem, as well as using space within the district to the best of its ability.

“This is a very old part of town and some of the streets and facilities are not really equipped to handle modern day issues,” he said.

Underwood said he also plans to collaborate with Vince Frye and the Topeka Chamber of Commerce to promote a partnership, collaboration and support across Topeka.

“I don’t begrudge their success, I just need to make sure we’re stepping up our game. There’s been some bumps growing pains, those kinds of things, but that just means we need to step it up,” Underwood said. “Not only in regards to what the vendors are providing and their hours and those kinds of things, but it’s also what are we collectively doing to promote NOTO, and tell people, ‘Here’s a good reason to come down here.’ ”

For more information, contact Underwood at thomas.underwood@notoartsdistrict.org.

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