With seven figures in grant funding from the state government, this town is moving forward on perhaps the largest infrastructure project for the area since construction began on the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge about 12 years ago.
Both that undertaking and the coming replacement of the Commercial Street Mall have involved a vision of spending millions of Kansas taxpayer dollars to boost vehicle access to a community of just over 11,000 people.
While the Earhart bridge forever changed the skyline of Atchison, the Mall project is much more focused on the ground level. It deliberately does away with an aspect of the town that makes it one of the few remaining communities in America that has an expansive area restricted to all motor vehicles. Almost all others are major tourist destinations: Think Los Angeles.
Being virtually unique among small towns in this way is a nice thing to think about, city leaders have said, but in all practical considerations, this venture has been a failure. Assorted vacant business and retail spaces in the Mall are the rule, not the exception.
“Despite its charm, we need to face the reality playing out in our downtown,” Atchison Mayor Shawn Rizza said, in a column published by Atchison Globe. “Most of the time, the pedestrian Mall is missing the pedestrians. Businesses have adapted by turning their back doors into their primary entrance. Often, this makes for an awkward arrangement in buildings built long before the Mall came to be.”
The Mall has architectural features in need of constant maintenance. Deterioration is obvious with regard to the overhead awnings meant to allow people to walk and window shop while avoiding the elements. In a full-vehicle-access block to the west, the situation differs.
Commissioner J. David Farris, newly elected to the City of Atchison City Commission this past November — but who has served the public in various capacities for decades — isn’t ready to take this step, though he offered praise to city staff for their “hard work” on the proposal.
The commission approved the proposal by a 3-1 vote on Tuesday afternoon, with Farris dissenting. Rizza, Vice Mayor Allen Reavis, and Farris’ colleague in the Commission Class of 2019, Abby Bartlett, voted in favor. Other newcomer Lisa Moody didn’t attend the meeting where the vote took place; Rizza said she has been away on business.
The project carries a $2 million price tag, just under 75 percent of which is coming from the Kansas Department of Transportation via a grant.
The project is designed to preserve, in every practical way, the public access that has been crucial to groups like the Atchison Area Chamber of Commerce and the Atchison Junior Guild for events in downtown free of motor vehicle interference.
Rita Hartman, who has a leading role with Junior Guild in organizing annual Oktoberfest celebrations, said her initial worries about the Mall replacement have been assuaged by municipal staff; she is confident that all future events will be able to take place as they have.
“I think they’re going to work with us,” Hartman said. “They still want us to have the event. The store owners downtown still want us to have the event, because we draw so many people in for it, and we still want to do it. So, I think the replacement will work very well for us.”
Farris cautioned his constituents to prepare for cost overruns requiring up to $1 million in local government investment, perhaps necessitating a significant property tax increase.
“There will be change orders, I think there will be surprises,” Farris said. “I have no idea what that is, but I would think $150,000 to $200,000. Plus, $10,000 to $15,000 a building on façade (renovations), and we really don’t know if the merchants will do it or if we’re going to have to.
“We could have to put up a stoplight — there’s another $250,000. And what scares me is, there’s a million-dollar investment, with no assurance we will get a return on our money.”