Three Momentum 2022 leaders throw down gauntlet: Changing Topeka is about everyone being involved

A city leader, a county leader and a businessman walked into a meeting with different outlooks, ideas and concerns.

 

Sounds like the beginning of a (probably bad) joke, but it’s actually the beginning of an effort that is focused on taking vastly different perspectives, underpinned by data and research, and making good things happen in Topeka.

Momentum 2022 — initially called the Topeka-Shawnee County Holistic Economic Development Strategy — launched in 2017 and has been chaired by Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast and Bartlett & West leader Keith Warta.

The tri-chairs led a steering committee of 43 people who diligently worked for months to get through three phases guided by Market Street Services, an Atlanta-based consultant hired in 2016 to develop the plan. First was community engagement, then regional scorecards and community assessment, and finally the creation of a holistic economic development strategy. All three, apparently gluttons for making community change and finding consensus, elected to keep their tri-chair positions through the fourth phase, the implementation stage that kicks off Jan. 1, 2018.

“I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen in a community development initiative or strategy, three community leaders work together as cohesively as these three have worked together,” said Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of GO Topeka and the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce.

“To have a county leader, to have a city leader, to have a corporate leader — the philanthropy of their time — they’ve dug in,” he said, working to find words to express his thoughts. “Market Street actually said they’re not sure they’ve ever seen a group of community leaders take their roles as seriously and dig in and work together as effectively as these three have.”

That commitment made all the difference to the long process that has required the integration of varying opinions from the city and county.

Each tri-chair brought their respective positions to the Momentum 2022 table and their personal views.

“I’ve got kids that I want to live in this community, but bigger than that, I talk with other parents who want their kids to stay in this community,” Warta said. “I think it’s a personal issue to a lot of people in that regard. I care about this community. I want it to prosper. I want it to be a place where people want to stay. From my professional standpoint, we need to have a community that attracts people to our community, attracts talent to our community so that we can fill jobs, so that we’ve got professionals and people that want to live here in Topeka for the sake of the businesses that operate here so they can grow. It’s all tied together.”

Momentum 2022 — initially called the Topeka-Shawnee County Holistic Economic Development Strategy — launched in 2017 and has been chaired by Shawnee County Commissioner Shelly Buhler, Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast and Bartlett & West leader Keith Warta.

Wolgast, who is finishing his second term as the city’s mayor, is pleased to be a part of an action-oriented plan.

“I think as an elected official, you’re faced with these types of things all the time, and you’re frustrated,” he said. “It’s difficult to make change. We all know what we want Topeka, Shawnee County to be. How do we achieve that? This is the best, by far, plan to achieve that we’ve ever had. So we want to be a part of it.”

Buhler agreed from her position as a county leader.

“You’re meeting twice a week as that county commission,” she said. “That’s important work, but I’m a firm believer that the most important work you do as a commissioner is those times between meetings, going out and engaging with the community. Hopefully you’re building that willingness in the community to have people get involved. I just hope that our work is an example that we care and that we want to see this community grow.”

The strategy, outlined in a 63-page report titled “Topeka-Shawnee County Holistic Economic Development Strategy,” isn’t an easy fix to the challenges Market Street helped delineate. But even with tough issues, such as changing the way Topekans think about their city, the strategy got a big thumbs up from the steering committee, Pivarnik said, adding that it continued to amaze the Market Street reps.

“The strategy actually had a 96 percent consensus from the steering committee saying this is our final strategy,” he said. “I expected it to be 80. Market Street had never seen that much consensus in a steering committee before. So the group, after being together for eight months, they were pretty copacetic that this was the strategy going forward.”

The composition of the committee, which is large by most standards, was a significant part of creating a comprehensive end product, Wolgast said.

“In all of my years of being involved in community work, programs, anything like this, I’ve never seen one that was more diverse and certainly every aspect of the community, we hope, was represented,” he said. “I think that gave confidence going forward.”

Buhler agreed.

“I think the diversity on the steering committee helped give voice to a lot of different groups in the community that maybe had not had a voice,” she said. “But I think we heard loud and clear that this is the beginning of that discussion. We have to listen.”

Although the tri-chairs share enthusiasm for the goals of Momentum 2022, they aren’t without concerns about meeting expectations that will be outlined as the implementation stage starts Jan. 1, 2018. Key to the success will continuing to involve a wide variety of organizations, Warta said.

“This isn’t just about the implementation committee or Matt (Pivarnik) or Kayla (Bitler, strategy coordinator),” he said. “It’s about the library. It’s about United Way. It is a little scary to look at the plan in totality, but understand there’s going to be different bites and chunks that the organizations are going to take possession of.”

It is a little scary because the changes aren’t surface, easy-to-make shifts. They’re taking deep looks at attitudes, diversity, inclusion, poverty and subjects such as why people choose to live in Lawrence when they work in Topeka.

For Warta, coming from the position of an executive with a strong company, the workforce issues present challenges.

“One of the major goals in the plan is to develop that homegrown talent,” he said. “I think through this whole process, we realized we’ve got a great educational system here in Topeka. We’ve got great training assets within the community. It’s just a matter of coordinating everything such that we’re getting folks trained, getting the talent trained and educated here and then keeping them here.”

The backbone committee of workforce development is called the cradle-to-career committee, he said.

Wolgast, too, acknowledged the complexity the group faces in making change.

“These are not little simple things we do this year and it’s done,” he said. “There’s no plan out there to decrease childhood poverty. The process is probably the key, that we can get this and it is step-by-step that will happen. The expectations can’t be too high. They have to be attainable on a regular basis.”

The word “attainable” strikes a chord with Pivarnik, who admitted to being concerned about how fast the group can “move the needle.”

“With a short timeframe, some of these metrics — growing population, increasing community perception, increasing community pride — how fast can we make those metrics move? The moves we’re making today, are they going to have an impact in ’19 and ’20 and ’21? I hope we can defy the odds and actually have positive movement on the metrics.”

Ultimately, it’s all about the people, and not just the tri-chairs.

“It you’re sitting at home and you’re trying to decide how does this impact me — it should impact you,” Buhler said. “It should touch you so that you want to do something, that you can inspire your church to do something, that you can inspire your school to do something, your business, your nonprofit.

“It’s not just a small group of people that are responsible for this plan,” she said. “It might be our responsibility to keep it going, but it’s going to take an impact from a large amount of people, the whole community, to really achieve that success.”

 

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