Investing in East Topeka
Based on measures from the five key indicators—poverty level, public safety, residential property values, single family home ownership and boarded houses—neighborhoods are scored to determine their overall health as follows:
THE LATEST HEALTH EVALUATION in 2014 showed that while most neighborhoods in Topeka have made improvement in all categories, a few still fall under the “Intensive Care” classification. While a large part of the prescription to nurse these neighborhoods back to health is public safety and infrastructure improvement, another key ingredient is investment by private businesses to build economic opportunities in these areas.
Several Topeka businesses have been operating in these “Intensive Care” neighborhoods for years and have chosen to stay and help improve the economic climate. Others are new to the area, looking to invest in these communities while growing viable businesses.
NEW BUSINESS When T. K. and Lindsey Adams were searching for a location to open their second Owls Nest Antique Store and Flea Market, they originally decided it would be in Manhattan, Kansas. However, when the owner of Boyles Joyland Flea Market approached them about purchasing his building at the corner of 29th and Adams, the couple reconsidered. They already had a location open at 3411 SW Topeka Blvd., and the idea of a second location in a different part of town appealed to them.
“We love Topeka so much that when the opportunity came up to have another store here, we jumped at it,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey says they did have people question their decision to purchase the old building in the Hi-Crest neighborhood because it wasn’t exactly in the best area of town. But the couple felt this opportunity was a win-win for both the Owls Nest and the community.
“If no one is willing to step in and take a chance on these neighborhoods that need help, then all they will do is keep going downhill,” Lindsey said. ‘We just felt like it was an opportunity for us to make a difference in Topeka.”
Even though they knew it was going to take a lot of hard work and a significant financial investment, T. K. and Lindsey wanted to be part of revitalizing that area of town, so they purchased the building in 2016.
“It didn’t scare us to do the hard work,” Lindsey said. “I grew up with a dad who bought houses and fixed them up, so we knew what were getting into.”
The couple spent the next several months hauling off more than 100 tons of trash, including old freezers left behind from when the building housed a Harry’s IGA, replacing the roof, adding a new concrete floor, installing an HVAC system (it didn’t have one before), repainting the entire exterior and interior (including the ceiling) and adding new signage. The costs ended up being more than double what the couple expected to spend.
“We didn’t get any government grants. We didn’t use any tax dollars. We saved our money and took out a loan to pay for this building,” Lindsey said.
Now that the Owls Nest Joyland is open for business, Lindsey says they couldn’t be happier about their choice. The vendors appreciate having another location where they can market their goods, and customers are happy to have a place to shop for unique antiques and crafts.
“People love the store,” Lindsey said. “Everyone who drops in just stops and gasps at what this building has become.”
EXISTING BUSINESS While the Owls Nest Joyland represents new business investing in this “Intensive Care” neighborhood, other businesses have been operating and investing in this area for years.
American Tax Service has been serving customers out of its location at 420 SE 29th Street for more than 20 years. When the company decided to consolidate its two locations into one office 10 years ago, owner Kurt Guth opted to move from the west side of town to the HiCrest location because of its proximity to a majority of his customer base. While he says it was sometimes challenging in the past to attract new customers, the future is looking pretty bright.
“The perception issue is sometimes hard to get over,” Guth said. “But in the past couple of years, people don’t seem to have the same concerns that they used to have about coming into this part of town.”
Guth said he is excited about the changes he is seeing all around him: street improvements, new businesses coming in, and existing businesses taking more pride in their locations. As older buildings are renovated and vacant spaces fill up, Guth says he hopes their corner of the neighborhood becomes a beacon to attract even more people to the area.
ADDITIONAL INVESTMENT A growing number of people see the value of investing resources to grow business in an area of town neglected by others. The old K-Mart building on SE 29th Street, which has been vacant since 2002, will be the new home to 450-500 self-storage units owned by O&H Investments out of Iowa. The company hopes to have the facility open early next year.
Just a little farther south on Kansas Avenue, the new BMW and Volkswagen dealership opened its doors in May to a brand new facility, boasting the largest new car showroom in Kansas. The addition of the luxury import dealership brings welcome excitement to not only the surrounding businesses, but also to the people in the neighborhood. Continuing the momentum, Sharp Honda plans to move its dealership to a new 34,000-square-foot facility at 32nd Terrace and Kansas Avenue sometime next year.
NEIGHBORHOOD BENEFITS Joe Ledbetter, Highland Crest Neighborhood Improvement Association president, says he is happy to finally see a serious turnaround happening in his community. The NIA lobbied extensively for major infrastructure improvements to the roads in Hi-Crest, Ledbetter says, and now most of the residential streets have been improved.
“In the past five years, I have lobbied for $10 million in roadwork improvement in the Hi-Crest neighborhood,” Ledbetter said. “Of course we didn’t get everything we asked for, but we have seen significant improvements.”
One of those infrastructure improvements still underway is the widening of SE Fremont Street from 29th to 31st streets. This project replaces the 2-lane street with a new 3-lane section, updates storm sewers and water lines, and includes a sidewalk and walking trail.
With these improvements, as well as businesses continuing to open their doors in Hi-Crest, Ledbetter says the neighborhood as a whole benefits economically.
“Commercially, Hi-Crest is seeing great investment by local business,” Ledbetter said. “I hope that leads to investment by homeowners and rental property companies as well.”
In addition to private investment, the NET Reach (Neighborhood Empowerment and Transformation) program, which was founded by the Topeka Rescue Mission, strives to combat homelessness in neighborhoods labeled as Intensive Care on the city health map. Operating out of the Avondale East NET Center since July of 2013, NET Reach has worked to bring about increased quality of life, as well as homeless, poverty and hunger prevention.
Monroe is another Topeka neighborhood that falls under the Intensive Care rating. Stretching from 21st to 14th streets, between Topeka Boulevard and Adams, this neighborhood also has its challenges. With poverty levels close to 60 percent and one of the highest crime rates in the city, Monroe doesn't have the best environment to attract business investment. However, a number of businesses continue to thrive in that area.
Concentrated along Kansas Avenue because of the high visibility and easy access, businesses including Schendel Pest Control, Stearns Super Center and Bob Florence Contractor have been serving customers for years from their locations along the avenue.
L & H Mobile Electronics sits in this corridor at 1818 S. Kansas Ave. and has been doing business out of the Monroe neighborhood since 1986. When owner Jonathan Gorman purchased the business 10 years ago, it never occurred to him to change its location.
“We are right on Kansas Avenue, so we have high visibility,” Gorman said. “I like the proximity to downtown and we are centrally located to car dealers, which make up about 15 to 20 percent of our business.”
Gorman also credits lower real estate costs and availability as part of his decision to stay in his existing location.
“It costs a lot less to do business on this side of town,” Gorman said. “It would cost me three times as much for a location on the west side of town, if I could even find one that fit my needs.”
While Gorman hasn’t noticed a lot of changes in his immediate vicinity, he said he is pleased by the improvements he has seen in other areas.
“We are pretty good here in our corridor,” Gorman said. “It is nice to see some investment in areas along the stretch of Kansas Avenue farther down, and the things happening in downtown and North Topeka are pretty exciting too.”
Gorman says that even though his business is technically located in a neighborhood noted for some blighted areas, he doesn't feel like he is in one.
“I haven’t had any more issues with break-ins or crime over here than I did when I had a business on Wanamaker,” Gorman said. “Every business around me has been here as long as I have or longer, and we are proud to do business on the east side.”
ECONOMIC IMPACT The investment by local businesses into these less advantageous neighborhoods, combined with the efforts of neighborhood improvement associations and social services, is beginning to make a difference. As these areas become more viable and businesses continue to thrive and grow, the entire community benefits. Strong neighborhoods plus strong businesses equals a strong Topeka.