by Melissa Brunner
Greetings from Oklahoma City, where the Greater Topeka Chamber of Commerce is getting ideas for making Topeka better.
How do you compare Oklahoma City and Topeka, you might ask? True, OKC has a million more people running around, but they have strugged with many of the same issues Topeka is facing, just on a larger scale. OKC had to figure out how to revitalize its downtown; the city is currently getting development between its riverfront and downtown off the ground; and a major highway through the center of downtown is being realigned.
The Chamber brought a group of 74 government, business and community leaders on an exchange trip to OKC to see what we could learn from this bigger city's experiences. A few things I've taken away. First, they've gotten their citizens to buy into the ideas. They like it so much so that they voted to approve a one-cent sales tax increase. The money has funded things like the Brick Town imrpovements (the area around their baseball stadium), street projects, new schools, and a series of dams and locks on their river to raise the level and spark development (incidentally, that led to the area becoming an Olympic-caliber rowing facility!). It wasn't always overwhelming support, mind you. It's been done in three phases, the first of which passed by only a narrow margin.
Second, one way they got people to buy into it was by giving control over the tax dollars to appointed boards, rather than the elected officials. This was because of a distrust of the elected officials that existed. In this way, they say, they ensured the money would be used for what they said it would be used for.
As this has all happened, they say, the city's public officials are all working together, communicating and getting along. They work in concert with businesses and chamber leaders. Above all, they say, there's no huge concern over who gets credit for any particular accomplishment. When no one's concerned about who gets credit, their mayor said, a lot can get done.
One other exciting thing happening is a makeover of the downtown streets and streetscapes. Much of this money is coming through a public/private partnership with a major company. What I found interesting about their approach, though, is the focus on communication. The downtown folks hold weekly meetings with business owners to keep them informed of what's going on and how it might affect access to their business. Likewise, they're constantly reviewing signage to ensure the latest detours are clear to the public. Their advice on downtown development - know your limitations and keep all people who utilize the downtown in mind, from the downtown workers, to the business and property owners, to the shoppers and diners.
When I asked some of my fellow attendees what they'll take away from this visit, John Ary (you know - the "I Love Topeka" guy) summed it up by saying it's making him wonder if perhaps Topeka is limiting itself in its vision for what downtown and the riverfront could be. It's making him want to think even bigger.