Four of Topeka’s economic development nonprofits will restructure their operations and begin working together by Jan. 1 as the Greater Topeka Partnership.
The Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce, GO Topeka, Visit Topeka and Downtown Topeka Inc. will retain their individual names and boards of directors, but they will become one of the pillars of GTP in what is called a unified management structure.
A council made up of the chairpersons from each of the four entities and their chair-elects, along with seven at-large community members, will govern the new partnership, meaning each will have significant management input, said Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of GO Topeka and the chamber. He will lead GTP as its chief executive officer.
“I came from a structure where we all were one team working together, and the team atmosphere, the economies of scale, were so incredible,” he said. “I almost didn’t have a clear understanding of how valuable it was until I came here and didn’t have it.”
Melding parts of their operations — and Pivarnik along with the leaders of each organization’s board were careful not to use the word “merger” — doesn’t mean the four groups go away. Each group will retain its identity and do the work it has been doing, but now they’ll share resources, work more closely together on fulfilling their missions and eventually operate under one roof, Pivarnik said.
“As a result of the Momentum 2022, it became obvious that the combination of the goals of each of these organizations overlapped,” said Wendy Wells, U.S. Bank regional manager and chair of the GO Topeka board. “It just kind of struck us in the face that really to combine our efforts would not only create efficiencies, but would also eliminate inefficiencies. Sometimes each organization independently might be heading down a similar path, but doing it without the necessary support of the other.”
Collaborations between the four nonprofits have been ongoing behind the scenes for the past year, she said.
The four groups and the 43-member steering committee for Momentum 2022 strategy, Topeka’s comprehensive economic development plan, have been discussing the new management structure for some time, said Curtis Sneden, chamber executive vice president.
But there were many legal “i’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross, including thoroughly discussing with each board how the new structure will work and then taking votes.
The paperwork for the new 501 (c)(6) corporation, a nonprofit entity, is expected to be filed Oct. 2, Sneden said.
Sneden, Pivarnik and all four board chairs were explicit that taxpayer monies will stay within the organizations that receive them.
“Most of these organizations, except the chamber, to some degree or another deal with public dollars,” Sneden said. “We think it’s very important to remind ourselves and anyone watching that there’s no aspect of this model that involves co-mingling those public dollars. All of that would still be accounted for and tracked and reported in a way that elected officials and the taxpayers can tell what’s happening with the money.”
To handle the “complicated” budgeting process, the chamber currently is advertising for a chief financial officer.
GO Topeka, the chamber and Visit Topeka already have merged their marketing departments, and it’s shared services like those that leaders hope will bring a cohesive, organized approach to tackling the many goals of Momentum 2022.
Janet Stanek, COO at Stormont Vail Health and chamber board chair, said a “unified direction” stands out to her as the primary goal of working together.
“The other attractiveness of this model is that the entities that are in the initial platform and then going forward do remain and retain their autonomy,” she said. “There are just some pieces and parts that flow to the partnership now that obviously are all agreed upon.”
The opportunity to collaborate and share strengths is an important point for Zach Snethen, project manager at HTK Architects and chair of Downtown Topeka Inc.
“Really joining just the levels of talent that each of the entities have and really working toward a collective community purpose,” he said. “There’s still a focus on downtown, a focus on business, a focus on tourism in Topeka, but we’re able to combine talent pools that existed somewhat autonomously before into a larger effort really working for the good of the city.”
Brendan Wiley, Topeka Zoo director and chairman of the Visit Topeka board, called the decision to form GTP a “no-brainer” from the perspective of being more organizationally efficient.
“This umbrella, this platform is really being set up in a way that not only can we implement the Momentum 2022 plan, but it just allows for synergy to occur, for people to really collaborate in a much better way,” he said. “What we’re already seeing is some of those barriers starting to come down that have to do with ‘my organization,’ ‘this is what my role is.’ Now it becomes our organization, our role, our purpose, our focus and it’s just … I cannot tell you how encouraging it is for a very productive future.”
Coordinating efforts to promote and develop Topeka must be done with a shared vision and shared language, Stanek said.
“I believe that’s probably been a source of why things haven’t moved forward in the past because we have had the various entities all with collegial relationships but not necessarily collaborative,” she said. “When you collaborate, you have to speak the same language. I think that’s a significant difference in this initiative. Having one umbrella, with everyone attending, hearing the same thing from the same oversight board, will force that to happen. It’ll be a good ‘force to happen’ but it is absolutely important that Topeka, in general, is conveying one message.”
The inability to shape that “one message” may have hurt the city in the past, Stanek said.
“Even from a business attraction perspective because there are so many mixed messages about who do we follow, who’s really leading the growth and economic development for the Topeka region,” she said. “Now it will be we all are, under one umbrella.”
That doesn’t mean there still aren’t numerous questions to answer and details to be considered. While the paperwork will be filed in October, the goal is to have GTP in place by Jan. 1. That gives the entities and their boards each time to make sure they understand what’s happening and head any problems off when they’re at the early stage.
Snethen said the DTI board discussed how it’s been primarily a membership-based organization, so there were numerous questions about memberships and sponsorships of downtown events and how those would be handled.
Those details are being fleshed out daily. For instance:
n Sneden said there are no plans to change the DTI Foundation, but the chamber’s foundation is being re-engineered to become a partnership foundation.
n Right now, many Topeka businesses and individuals pay membership dues to the chamber and to DTI. That won’t continue. A significant capital campaign is underway to fund Momentum 2022 and, as part of that, the transition.
n Employee positions will morph as GTP becomes established, with some employees stepping into roles that affect GTP while others take on different roles within their organizations. All the employees will be GTP employees.
Wells said she’s amazed and impressed that each organization has looked at its role and mission within the community and seen the need to be more collaborative.
“This is going to sound a little silly, but looking at our federal government and their inability to act and have good intentions without self-interest — self-interest (in Topeka) has just evaporated. This is about Topeka,” she said. “It’s not about any individual organization’s self-interest. It’s amazing that each of these constituencies can recognize that they’re better combined. Candidly, I think we weren’t prepared for this two years ago because we didn’t have the momentum we have now. We are riding on some serious momentum. The fact that we are makes it even more important that we combine our efforts.”
Pivarnik doesn’t expect the process to be without bumps.
“There will be some growing pains,” he said, adding that each organization has cultures that differ even though much of their missions overlap. But said he is excited for the possibility as each one comes together to make Momentum 2022 a reality, and to begin to look beyond 2022.
“The analogy I like to use is the Blue Angels,” Pivarnik said. “We think about the Blue Angels and they practice, practice, practice. When they go out to do a show on Saturday, they’re perfectly in sync. For us, us being all of these different economic development organizations, we tend to not practice together and then try to actually do the air show together. We’re already partners, but this will allow us to align more and actually execute the air show perfectly when it comes time for us to execute and play as a team.”