Overland Park’s oldest commercial corridor might be getting a facelift.
The city’s downtown was recently designated a Kansas Main Street by the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Overland Park is the largest city to be granted the honor in the 27-year history of the program. Typically, the Kansas Main Street designation has only been for cities with 50,000 people or less.
At no cost to the city, the state program uses a group of experts to determine ways a designated city can improve its downtown. This week, they will spend a few days observing activity, interviewing business owners, and talking to residents in downtown Overland Park. The program focuses on ways the downtown can improve its organization, promotion, design and economic structure.
On Thursday evening, they will present their findings and advice to city leaders.
Robin Fish, the executive director of the Downtown Overland Park Partnership, said Kansas Main Street is more of a self-help program for cities. After all, she pointed out, nobody else is going to save the city. Using the experts’ recommendations, the community has to do that itself.
Although Fish is unsure what the program will recommend, she knows from research that it could be anything from suggesting that the city attract a certain kind of business to fill a gap, or even encouraging the city to focus more on its history.
She is excited to find out ways the city can improve its original business district.
“Downtown is a major piece of Overland Park’s history,” she said. “It began as our community’s gathering place and it remains an important gathering place today.”
Organizers for Kansas Main Street are just as eager to get the ball rolling.
Mary Helmer, the coordinator for Kansas Main Street, said Overland Park is a lot different than most of the cities the program has helped before. Not just because of its size, she added, but because of its organization.
In most cities, experts have to spend a lot of time structuring a downtown community organization before any revitalization can take place.
Since Overland Park already has the downtown partnership, it takes a lot time off the program’s shoulders.
“There is a great organization already set up, which is very nice because that takes away a lot of the groundwork,” she said. “With this program, we try to strengthen businesses first. There are already interesting shops and great restaurants in Overland Park, so that part is going to be a lot of fun.”
She’s also delighted that the city already has several unique events, such as the farmer’s market and Fall Fest.
Not only does Helmer find it important to draw more residents to downtowns’ businesses and festivities, but she hopes the program inspires more residents to live in downtown districts as well. The program focuses on attracting certain demographics, such as empty nesters and young professionals, to call downtown their home.
Jim Seitnater, downtown development director for Hutchinson, Kan., who is also involved with the program, agrees. One of the challenges facing most midwestern downtowns is finding the balance between looking forward and respecting the past, he said. One way to overcome that issue could be turning old spaces into lofts.
“For most towns, the commerce started downtown,” he said. “To keep the story alive, we have to keep these downtowns up and running. It all comes down to finding different uses for old buildings and preserving the city’s legacy.”
After Kansas Main Street makes its recommendations, it is up to Overland Park to follow them or not. Over the next five years, the city is expected to make improvements to its downtown, and its progress will be noted by the program’s leaders.
“Overland Park is a fairly young suburban city, so I think it’s important that we connect to our original” business area, said Jack Messer, director of Planning Development for Overland Park. “I’m really excited to see what kind of changes we can make, to bring more people downtown.”