Downtown leader: Collaboration will help Topeka accomplish its goals

“Collective action” is a key phrase in the Momentum 2022 strategy, creating goals for change in which multiple organizations and individuals work together.

 

Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and GO Topeka, understands the value of collaboration to make things happen.

Along with leaders of Visit Topeka, Downtown Topeka Inc. and Heartland Visioning, he is focused on ensuring they work toward common goals.

“Right now, there’s a spirit of collaboration and participation from the organizations,” he said. “We’re bringing the organizations together within the community so they’re focused on strategy.”

Although the organizations already work closely, Vince Frye, president and CEO of Downtown Topeka Inc., said pushing collaboration will help Topeka accomplish its goals.

“It’s nothing that’s very unusual that we’re all talking and cooperating,” he said. “But when we all are putting out the same messaging and establishing the brand that we want our community to be, then it becomes certainly more cohesive, and it’s more of a powerful message because it has all of backing and support of these organizations and the people that are members of those organizations.”

Momentum 2022 is a sign of what the community wants, collectively, to be, Frye added, and it will help to speak the same language and work for that purpose.

The organizations are focused on economic development, Pivarnik said, but that doesn’t always mean approaching issues in the same way.

“At the very root of anything we do, we’re creating economic prosperity for the region,” he said. “We already work very closely together, and we’re good teammates. But sometimes it feels like – here’s a sports analogy. This is basketball country. We’re like a basketball team that we all practice individually throughout the week, then we come together on Saturdays and play a game. I believe all these organizations are good organizations, so we would be good basketball players. But the more we practice together and the more we partner with one another, the better we’re going to be able to actually play the game together.”

Kayla Bitler talks about bringing groups together with Momentum 2022.

A first step has already been taken. In recent months, the Visit Topeka and chamber/GO Topeka marketing teams relocated to work side by side in a conference room at the Visit Topeka office.

It’s affectionately called the “war room.”

Pivarnik is thrilled to tap into the expertise at Visit Topeka, where he believes staffers bring skills that weren’t as strong in his team.

“I found myself being a proud of how good they were, and then maybe a little envious that I didn’t have the access to that type of marketing and communications sophistication,” he said, laughing. “Most of their marketing is external. Their creativity and then their analytics — when they do social media marketing, they can actually break down the analytics for us.”

As the organizations discuss and share strategies, it’s also clear some of their work overlaps, though Visit Topeka markets more to meeting planners and GO Topeka markets to location consultants and companies.

“If you’ll look the reason that people visit a community and the reason that people live in a community, seven of the top 10 reasons that people live in a community are the same seven of the top 10 reasons that people visit in a community,” Pivarnik said. “Really the marketing messages are not that much different.”

Merging the marketing teams allows both organizations to tap into economies of scale, although each might tailor brand messages for their specific situations. Messaging and brand consistency are key, Pivarnik said.

When the chamber hosted an inter-city visit to Des Moines in 2016, one of the top comments from attendees was how speakers from various places across the community, doing different jobs, all used similar terminology and messages. In Des Moines, the economic development organizations have maintained their individuality but have also merged under an umbrella organization, the Greater Des Moines Partnership.

While it looked like those Des Moines leaders may have just picked up the same phrasing, it’s about more than the message, Pivarnik said.

“Is it as much the same message, or is it that everybody is rowing in the same direction, with the same strategy and aspiring to the same goals?” he said. “I think it comes out in messaging, but they all understand the goals.”

Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, said the 130-year-old organization underwent changes in 1999 when it merged over a few years with three other economic development organizations to create a unified mission.

“When it came together, the discussions were we shouldn’t have multiple organization doing some of the same things,” he said, adding that the mergers were led by strong local, private-sector leaders.

The group also created an affiliate program through which they reached out to chambers in the area and created dual membership options and began to work together on economic development as a region, Byers said. Today, they have 23 affiliate chambers, making them the fourth-largest chamber in the country, with 6,000 regional members.

Although the Topeka area doesn’t have the same population base as Des Moines, working as a region to create messaging and economic development goals is something Pivarnik is pursuing by meeting more frequently with leaders in Manhattan and Lawrence.

“We call that KRN, Kansas Research Nexus. Right now we’re breathing new life into that,” he said. “It’s been around for a long time, but it’s ebbed and flowed, especially with changes in leadership. We actually met as a group 30 days ago. What we’re trying to do is figure out how we can do a marketing initiative together. From a legislative standpoint, we have what we call METAL, which is Manhattan, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence. We share a legislative agenda together.”

Merging multiple organizations to create a collective vision wasn’t without challenges, Byers said, although he was in the community and not GDP’s leader at the time. Each organization was careful to protects its interests.

“I think the key with what happened here and what you’re working on are what are the best parts of these organizations? How do you maximize those resources to be with common messaging and common goals? That’s hard. It takes a lot of work to synthesize all of that,” he said. “Like any negotiations, you’ve got to come in and give a little bit and come in protecting what you think is most important, and when you come out the other side of the negotiations, everybody ends up stronger.”

Pivarnik already is seeing the benefit of creating a message, and it’s simply the depth at which Momentum 2022 is starting to be part of conversations, even before the official launch and name-change from the Topeka-Shawnee County Holistic Economic Development Strategy.

“The phrasing is coming up,” he said. “As I’ve met with aspiring elective leaders, they all walking in here saying ‘We’ve read Momentum 2022,’ and they’re familiar. This plan, this strategy, has become a Topeka household name very quickly. I’m actually surprised at how fast people are shifting.”

Read more about Momentum 2022: The plan to improve Topeka and Shawnee County
 

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