Evergy and CapFed, the spark that was missing from the Downtown Plaza project

Fifty people filled a conference room at 715 S Kansas Ave Wednesday evening for a community update and discussion on Evergy Plaza – Downtown Topeka. Thank you, Jamie Hornbaker, StateFarm Agent and co-founder of seveneightfive magazine, for the invitation. Our invite must have gotten lost in the mail.

To say I was rankled by, to my assessment, the lack of a community invitation to such a monumental conversation, albeit I had yet to know the exact dynamics of this meeting, would be absurdly on point.

Pat Michaelis, chair of Downtown Topeka Foundation and A. Kurt Young, executive director of the Topeka Lodging Association welcomed the group and kicked off the presentation / conversation by defining the scope.

Evergy Plaza Downtown Topeka: where we are, where we’re going and how we’re doing it.

Zach Snethen, HTK Architects, walked us through some impressive renderings of Evergy Plaza: A performance stage in the northeast corner, a large digital video screen, a spacious landscaped center area equipped for large events or dare I say, space for a seasonal outdoor ice rink, plus 30 by 100 feet dry deck fountains. Imagine a timid Bellagio-style water dance on the sidewalk of Kansas Ave. We didn’t have to. Zack showed us a video of the lights in action and it was pretty damn marvelous. Lastly, a space carved for supporting food and retail businesses. To say I was piqued with interest would be absolutely on point.

Next, McPherson Contractors talked us through their two-phase approach to the project. First phase, demolition. BAHM.

Bahm, because that’s the local demolition team chosen for the job, in part because of their diligence to properly recycle, repurpose and dispose of every piece of debris, down to the nails.

Bahm, because demolition begins Thursday (as in today) folks. Literally. Yes. Look for a large red (we think) fence to line 7th and Kansas on the northeast side starting early morning, weather permitting.

The demolition phase, or Phase One, is slated to take approximately six weeks. Next comes, you guessed it, Phase Two, construction.

“Before we go any further,” said Michaelis, “I see the Mayor there in the back. Thank you for being here. Would you like to say anything the group?”

Without hesitation Mayor De La Isla jumps to the front of the room and energetically speaks of the project. She soothes and salves my slight cynicism as she thanks Evergy and CapFed, stating they were the “spark that was missing” for the project. She reminisced and reminded us of the early stages, the Capital District Project and a dream for downtown whose first architectural drawing was comprised of simple curves on a bar napkin.  (Learn more, read seveneightfive June/July 2016, page 19)

She quoted the naysayers who said “nothing is going to succeed” and talked about the charrettes held on 8th Street back in 2010, where the community was asked to share what their dream downtown could look like. Would look like.

She reminded us of the power we have when we work together. And she spoke of the importance, for herself and our community, to have a place that is inviting to all.

“Our community needs, desires and deserves something like this.”

I sat a bit taller in my seat. Proud to have been a small part of those conversations years ago. Proud to be sitting next to the co-founder of this magazine, who happened to be sitting next to William Beteta, former director for Heartland Visioning. “Oh, we know a bit about fighting the odds and keeping with a dream,” I thought to myself. My excitement was now dancing like the plaza water fixture will come March 2020.

Evergy Plaza will truly be a marvelous place. Truly. And thank you Evergy (Evergy is the result of the Great Plains Energy and Westar merger. It’s okay, I had to look it up) and our friends at CapFed; amongst numerous private and corporate investors. The bill; a cool 9.6 million of which 82 percent has been raised thus far.

“Excuse me?” The only dancing happening now was in my arm, waiting for the chance to ask my question. “If I did the math correctly, that equates to 1.8 million left to be raised…” Confirmed. “So while I don’t want to put doubt or be that person, I heard you state earlier that Phase Two will not start until the full 9.6 million is raised. So what happens with the area if the goal is not met? Do we have a huge square block of dirt in the middle of Downtown or is there a Plan B with scaled back amenities that still brings the plaza reality to fruition?”

Michaelis and Young enthusiastically told me this was not even a thought in their mind. “We aren’t even going there,” Michaelis stated. The two assured the group that they will raise the money and that we (Topeka) will have our dream plaza. They were not going to cut something, like the ice-skating rink, from the dream project. They were confident that they will raise the funds and indicated working diligently to close the gap prior to demolition wrapping in the projected six weeks. (So if you got some bills burning holes in your pocket, you now know who to call. You’re welcome.)

My face was hot red. (Shit. Am I a pessimist at heart?) But the air of the answer and the lack of a Plan B riled me.

Adding to the hard questions was Councilwoman Hiller, who wanted to know the process of communication to her district citizens, if any street blocking would occur and when, how safety was being addressed, to name a few.

Big ideas come with great scrutiny, and the fact the questions being delivered were specific, meaningful and focused was a positive for me. My pessimism had all but escaped as the meeting began wrapping up.

It was the Mayor’s authentic energy that shook my pessimistic attitude that evening, but it was the look in the Godfather’s eyes that told me The Plaza was a reality. Vince Fry, whom I’ve now dubbed as the Godfather of Downtown Topeka Revitalization, was not a part of the evening’s presentation, beyond politely grabbing chairs for late-comers. It was his final thoughts, however, that put my mind on the plaza. Fry shared his excitement for the project. He referred to Mayor De La Isla’s recount of The Capital District Project and the overwhelming number of dreamers, who spoke years ago of what their Downtown would and could look like. “With the Cyrus Hotel opening next week and the Iron Rail now open; with The Pennant down the street and The White Linen…and now The Plaza. This is what you wanted. This is what you dreamed of. This is what you asked for. And it’s all finally coming together. I just hope you are all as excited as I am.”


An Evergy Plaza website is being developed.

How operational funding will be procured
How the location was secured
Other concerns addressed at the meeting, not mentioned in this article:
WIBW News 

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