Investing in East Topeka
He could keep a west-side office with fewer, but higher income clients, or maintain the presence his company had developed at 420 SE 29th Street closer to the majority of his customer base.
On the surface, that may seem like an easy decision, land where your customers are. But the area was one that Guth knew some clients normally avoided. However, Guth decided that offering a professional product at a competitive price in a nice environment would draw the customers regardless of location. He was right.
“It is challenging to get people to come over here, but once they are here they feel safe,” Guth said. “When they see that we’ve committed to and fixed up the place they feel comfortable.”
Guth is one of a growing number of business owners and other Topeka leaders who see the value of staying and growing in an area of town others have left behind. The area is known as Highland-Crest Neighborhood or Hi-Crest.
The residents in the neighborhood recently faced what seemed like dire circumstances. USD 501 put Avondale East on a list of elementary schools slated to close. The challenged neighborhood and businesses in the area begged for it to stay open, but it wasn’t to be. Instead, the school district promised to repurpose the building into something that would remain a positive site in the community.
“We didn’t have a definite plan for Avondale East,” explained Larry Robbins, USD 501 deputy superintendent of operations. “We just wanted to make sure that we repurposed the building, and we wanted to make sure we had programs that would benefit the neighborhood.”
While the district is committed to repurposing all closed school buildings, it seemed more important than ever at Avondale East, where the neighborhood had already been struggling with instability.
Deemed an “intensive care” area on City of Topeka’s neighborhood health map for more than a decade, statistics for residents in the Hi-Crest Neighborhood are staggering:
25% unemployment rate
50% of adults live in poverty
92% of children live in poverty
highest percentage of police calls for children in need
highest percentage of families with children served in foster care in Shawnee County
OPPORTUNITY TO TRANSFORM
The neighborhood had been of interest to Topeka Rescue Mission Executive Director Barry Feaker for a number of years. With the Mission over capacity and the growing number of families in need, Feaker started looking for ways to keep people from needing their services.
The Rescue Mission created a new ministry call NET “Neighborhood Empowerment and Transformation” Reach to help people reintegrate into the community maintain life off the streets. Its goal is to help transform neighborhoods into safe places with resources to help people live successful lives.
The Community Resources Council (CRC), which is committed to bringing community resources to people, proposed to USD 501 leaders a partnership with the Topeka Rescue Mission that would be located in the Avondale East building. CRC Executive Director Nancy Johnson says the idea is to use the school as a satellite center for a variety of non-profit and government services in order to make them directly available to residents of the area, putting the resources where people need them.
The school district agreed that the Avondale East Community Empowerment and Transformation Center would be a good use of the space.
“We’re just thrilled to death that we were able to accomplish our goal, because our goal was certainly parallel with what CRC wants to accomplish and with what Barry Feaker and the Rescue Mission has implemented,” Robbins said.
BRINGING RESOURCES INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD
This project corrects the disconnect between the location of resources and the location of people who need them by not only bringing the resources into the neighborhood, but also addressing what kind of resources are needed most.
“So instead of hit or miss, we all of a sudden have a focused program that would take into account the needs of the neighborhood,” Johnson said.
Sally Zellers is heading up the Hi-Crest NET pilot project, which will be one of the biggest tenants at the old school. She believes that as the neighborhood center helps people, it will also help local businesses. “There is a stabilizing influence for businesses when neighborhoods get stabilized,” Zellers said. “The goal is to create neighborhood attachment and make Hi-Crest a place people want to stay.”
WORTHWHILE INVESTMENT The center continues what many business owners in the area believe—that Hi-Crest it is a worthwhile investment.
Dean’s Books owner LeAnn Bearden says she would never consider leaving behind the area and moving her store. The used book store at has been at 420 SE Massachusetts Avenue for many years, but Bearden has only owned it three years. Like others in the area, she has recently made improvements to the exterior look of the store with updated signage.
Her customers come from all parts of Topeka and even out of town to trade and buy at her store. Bearden believes setting up shop in a neighborhood like Hi-Crest gives business owners a better chance for success. “I think it’s so much more expensive to lease space on the west side of town. It makes more sense, if you are starting out to find a place that’s conveniently located and reasonably priced,” Bearden said.
ABK Insurance owner Terri Boyd also draws clients from a wide region. It was the area and size of the property at 3339 SE Adams St. that drew her in. “The parking lot was big and open. I fell in love with the location of the building,” Boyd said. She also has spent considerable time renovating her building.
Neighbors have been supportive and watch out for her business at night. While some people have told her she was “brave” to invest in the Hi-Crest location, Boyd is quick to set the record straight, “I take offense to that because we’ve never had problems there. The neighbors have treated us like family. If I thought the neighborhood wasn’t good, I wouldn’t have bought the building.”
The businesses Boyd, Bearden and Guth operate in Hi-Crest all bring incustomers and clients from a wide area. Those are the kinds of businesses that can expose other Topekans to the positive things going on in Hi-Crest.
Johnson believes social services are a thread that weaves with economic development to build the vibrant fabric of the city. A stronger Hi-Crest builds economic strength for Topeka over the long-haul.
“Economically the community is only as strong as its weakest neighborhood,” Johnson said. “If we don’t have strong neighborhoods, we don’t have a strong community. Are we going to change it over night? No, but we will over time.”