A multimillion dollar downtown plaza planned for the capital city is supported by the Topeka Lodging Association, a quiet group that isn’t regularly in the middle of city planning topics.
But Kurt Young, executive director of the organization that represents local hotel and motel owners, said the plaza’s creation will substantially impact his industry. He was first introduced to the idea of a plaza that would offer entertainment options downtown when serving on the Visit Topeka board and consultant Roger Brooks recommended one be built.
“When it comes to booking large-scale conventions and meetings in Topeka or any place, the meeting planner that you’re dealing with for that convention, whether it’s 300 guests or 1,000 guests, they always want to know what is there for our people to do in your fair city after 5 o’clock in the evening,” he said. “For us, it’s been difficult.”
Young said TLA members stepped up strongly to support plaza development efforts by approaching the transient guest tax committee and asking them to renew an expiring 1 percent guest tax and dedicate all or a portion of those funds to build the plaza. That puts $3.4 million toward building the plaza.
The key to the plaza’s success is being well programmed, he added.
“The is not just green space downtown,” Young said. “I have fought that battle even with some leaders in the community. They don’t understand that this is more than just a park downtown. This is a venue.”
Brooks gave the city statistics saying traffic to Topeka will triple as a result of a downtown plaza, he said, adding that it needs to be programmed with a minimum of 250 event days per year. To adequately handle scheduling, it will cost the city about $500,000 per year, and Young said the TLA stepped in on that aspect too.
The group worked to form a Tourism Business Improvement District, in which Topeka hoteliers voluntarily assess themselves $1 per sold room and the resulting funds would support plaza programming. Approval for the district is in process.
“Transient guest tax money is not local tax money,” he said. “So far, we have not asked for one dime of taxpayer money on this project.”
The plaza committee, on which Young serves, did a survey asking what people would like to see included in the downtown plaza. The plaza group has been working to develop an operation plan before designing the plaza, and part of their work has been contacting other communities to see how their plazas have benefited them.
“I can tell you in Rapid City, (Iowa), they were running in their downtown core area a little over 50 percent occupancy in their retail space,” Young said. “They’re now 100 percent occupied and have a waiting list. Their per square foot cost of leasable floor space has tripled. It’s phenomenal what it’s done for Rapid city, and we hope to do the same thing here.”
Chris Zimmerman, Smart Growth America’s vice president for economic development and director of the Governors’ Institute on Community Design, said downtown plazas are important in revitalization.
“In the 21st century, what we’re finding is that the key strategy for economic development is really place making,” he said, adding that can mean walkable neighborhoods, unique character and creating places people want to be.
Certain elements are important to downtown design, Zimmerman said.
Creating an outdoor room, he advised, because what’s around the plaza is important.
“It has that sense of openness but it has that sense of enclosure too,” he said. “That can be even more important than size. I want it bounded. The edges are really important. A lot of plazas don’t work because the edges die.”
Flexible space, Zimmerman added, is important because it’s difficult to know how the community will use it until it is actually in use.