Since Interstate 35 was completed in Olathe in 1961, its downtown has suffered as businesses moved away toward the higher-traffic zone to the east. Many of the former storefronts surrounding the Johnson County Courthouse are now either empty or taken up by law offices that close their doors by 5 p.m.
But now a group of boosters, led by a couple of pastors, has taken it upon themselves to revitalize the “Central Core Neighborhood,” as they call it, and they held their first Fourth Friday celebration last month.
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About two dozen people crowded into the Kansas Coffee Café on the square, which stayed open late to host the event. Free coffee, snacks and a performance by folk musician David Chartrand drew a mix of adults and children.
“We started this to try to bring government and residents and the business sector together,” said Ryan Nelson, who is both the senior pastor of Olathe’s 33 Church and a member of the city’s Planning Commission. “Olathe is a great place, and we are trying to help that greatness expand even more.”
Kai Blakeborough, formations pastor at 33 Church, was the main organizer of the Fourth Friday event, which is to continue through the fall.
“The vision is to grow this to where it’s a destination for the entire city,” Blakeborough said.
While the initial event was centered at Kansas Coffee Café, Blakeborough said summertime events would feature musicians in the bandstand on the courthouse lawn.
Blakeborough said he had met with several downtown business owners while planning the initial Fourth Friday and received good responses.
“We need to get more retail options down here,” he said. “It’s good to see more small businesses come and call downtown Olathe home. … What happens here can affect the whole city.”
Emily Kukal, Olathe’s neighborhood assessment coordinator, attended the first Fourth Friday event and said city leaders are pleased to see it.
“I have been working with these guys and the neighborhood group and the planning division,” she said. “A downtown business association is starting to form.”
Crystal Grohs, who, with her husband Chris Grohs, owns Kansas Coffee Café, thinks downtown Olathe is making a comeback.
“They’re trying to beautify Olathe,” she said. “They raised the railroad tracks and quieted the trains passing through. They’re building a huge community center that is supposed to open in July. They did the fountain and the brickwork on Santa Fe (Street). It’s a matter of getting people to know more about what’s going on downtown, besides the courthouse district.”
Dennis Newton and his wife own a business in an historical building directly north of the café and east of the courthouse. It combines Kansas 4D Ultrasound, where expectant parents can get a preview of their offspring, and the toy and clothing store Peeps Babies and Bears. They opened more than two years ago and said business is “a little slow.”
“We don’t get a lot of walk-in business,” Newton said, “We’re the only retail store down here.”
Still, he said, he is encouraged by the Fourth Friday effort and stayed open late to participate.
Rebecca Shipley, who co-owns Olathe Glass & Home Décor at 510 E. Santa Fe St., five blocks east of the courthouse, said her business has grown steadily since moving to its current location in 1986.
“I’m about ready to outgrow my building,” Shipley said. “Moving downtown may be an option. … I don’t want to lease space in a strip mall. It’s impersonal and not attractive. I want ownership of a building. It gives you character and makes you different — more memorable.”