There may be hope for Topeka: City hears proposal for retractable-roof baseball stadium

Julie Knapp

Anyone cruising in the “Topeka is boring” bandwagon hit a bump in the road last Tuesday. The Topeka City Council heard an interesting presentation by Michael Johnson, an outside developer and Bruce Miller, an architect from HOK Sport + Venue + Design, billed as the world leader in sports architecture. The council was interested enough to move their project one step further, as they attempt to add a broad new dimension to Topeka living.

?The two men came to ask for the city’s blessing to continue work on a project that could change not only the attitude, but also the look of Topeka within the next two to three years. Johnson, who was a minor league baseball player, and his team of professionals hope to bring a revitalization project to downtown Topeka near 10th and Kansas anchored by a state-of-the-art minor league baseball stadium.

?Johnson envisions the new “water tower” or “gaslight” district with modern lofts, store fronts and – cross your fingers here – a bar scene worth an estimated total of $120 million. It would provide roughly four to five thousand jobs year-round, and if Topeka enjoys the success that many other cities similar to ours have, he says it could be the beginning of a bright chapter in Topeka’s history.

?Similar to the plan that Washburn used to revitalize its campus and carve a new niche in the market, the plan will use the nation’s only minor-league retractable roof stadium and about 6 blocks worth of new buildings and fresh looks to attract citizens in Topeka and anywhere near. In many cities, these stadiums and revitalizations have had a ripple effect on the area surrounding them and Johnson’s team – with 80 years of experience in this business – thinks they can make it a reality in Topeka.

?The presentation was bold, with Johnson complimenting Topeka more times in 45 minutes than it’s probably been in the last year. Even the most cynical realist couldn’t help but be excited by some of the things Johnson promised the council. If nothing else, it was a breath of fresh air for a city with a crippling image and a host of ashamed citizens.

?Johnson hopes to start building in 2006 and be on the field for the 2007 baseball season selling dollar hotdogs, dollar refreshments and free parking every night. His plan calls for 4,500 free parking spots and hopes to bring in the same number of fans each night. Although stadium seating will be modest to create demand and help the ballpark “feel” busy, the design incorporates large grass sections beyond the outfield walls to accommodate bigger crowds on nights like the Fourth of July.

?Although 4,500 each night might seem a bit ambitious for a town with what councilman Richard Harmon referred to as a “checkered” history with minor league franchises, Johnson maintains there is interest.

?”You’ll have all kinds of interest from teams,” Johnson said. “Major league teams will be looking to expand to your new market,” adding that they have already seen a “tremendous amount of interest” from nationally recognizable companies in the naming rights for the new field of dreams.

?Johnson may be on to something too. There are probably quite a few students that would be interested in walking just a few steps from an ultra-modern loft to grab a cheap hotdog and watch a game peering into the outfield spiked by the Capitol dome in the sunset. It’s a fantastic concept. The council was intrigued and the community should be too.

?In reality however, last night’s meeting was nothing more than the first baby step in a marathon of bureaucracy, bickering and questions; real estate developers rank low on the list of most trustworthy people in the world. It was a step though, and for a city that’s not done much exercising in that department lately it was a welcome change of pace.

?A final decision on the stadium will take months, and that final project will more than likely be scaled down from last night’s fireworks extravaganza, but it’s still something to keep an eye on. It’s progress, so perhaps that bandwagon and each of its passengers should look both ways before crossing any downtown streets for the next few months.