Focus on East Topeka with Momentum 2022 expected to help lift up area, rest of community

Alonzo Harrison began brainstorming ways to improve East Topeka 20 years ago. Now, with the Momentum 2022 strategic planning initiative’s focus on the area, he says he is excited about improvements that seem to be on the way.

 

“I think it’s an initiative that started a lot of years ago and I’m hopeful that if we can make this happen we can show the citizenry of East Topeka that there is a concern in investment in their part of the city,” said Harrison, owner of HDB Construction in Topeka and a GO Topeka executive board member.

Kayla Bitler, strategic coordinator for Momentum 2022, an initiative meant to support economic developments in Topeka, said most objectives aren’t focused on one particular region of the city but are meant to be implemented city- and countywide.

But bringing extra attention that part of the city was a concern raised during community engagement in building Momentum 2022.

“I think there’s been a concern for many years, as long as I can remember, that East Topeka has been under-represented,” said Keith Warta, president of Bartlett & West and a tri-chair of Momentum 2022. “It certainly gets back to the whole concept that this is the entire community’s plan. We want to make sure that they were represented in a very public way in the plan.”

Although the geographic emphasis is rare in community plans, Matt Pivarnik, president and CEO of the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce and GO Topeka, agreed it was warranted because of the community concerns.

“I think it’s addressing equity, economic equity, in just making sure that somebody in East Topeka has the same opportunities to succeed as anywhere else in the county,” he said.

The East Topeka Learning Center is a project expected to bring the most change to the East Topeka area. It will provide post-high school courses, such as opportunities for GED testing and other certificate programs. Located at 2014 S.E. Washington St., the center is set for a soft opening in late 2018 and should be fully operational by the fall of 2019.

Barbara Stapleton, vice president of Workforce and Education at GO Topeka, said when looking at what the Topeka community needed most, they noticed a lack of educational services in the East Topeka neighborhoods.

“One of the things that we saw that really just jumped out is that — for lack of a better term — there is an education desert in East Topeka,” she said, adding the center will provide training opportunities to fill gaps in the workforce.

This is also one of the reasons Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast said it is important to spend funds on such projects.

“Part of it is developing a workforce for the jobs that are available,” he said, emphasizing that it’s not only about creating jobs but also about finding people who can fill existing positions.

While Harrison is excited about the learning center, he says he is more eager to see if other projects follow.

“I’m hopeful that other lateral activity will spring up,” he said, mentioning better lighting, sidewalks and streets. “Hopefully, if we grow that piece and other businesses come along to support it — whether that be eateries, laundromats, shoe repairs and hardware stores; all the little things that make a community go along — this will be an anchor to other opportunities.”

Harrison said an important thing to remember is that there is often a lot of negativity associated with East Topeka and that these types of programs are necessary to change that mindset.

“I think if we have something this positive … (it) will enhance the quality of life,” he said. “I think it will be a substantial demonstration of commitment to enhance the eastern portion of the city.”

Bitler said the task force has been formed to focus specifically on East Topeka in order to ensure that progress is being made in a productive way.

“The goal of the East Topeka Council is really that they will provide recommendations to other groups about how those objectives can be defined by groups in East Topeka,” she said. “(It is) really an advisory board to make sure the plan as a whole is implemented.”

Wolgast said there can be arguments made for needing focus like this in each quadrant of the city, but that East Topeka seems to need it most.

He said he had heard from people who know East Topeka well and that their “warm, emotional, heartfelt feelings” are what convinced him these actions were necessary.

“We’re aware the need is there but to have the people there express it, it tells us this is something that needs to be done,” he said.

Working toward improving East Topeka will in turn help to improve the rest of the city, Stapleton said.

“We’ve talked about that rising tide that raises all ships,” she said. “This is what we’re doing in terms of that tide. If you can elevate areas of the community, it brings everyone up to that level.”

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

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