Continuing momentum in revitalization of downtown among priorities for new Shawnee city manager

Mayor Michelle Distler administered the oath of office to new city manager Nolan Sunderman earlier this summer.

For a city split down the middle — between the city’s original neighborhoods on the east and the booming new subdivisions on the west — development and, in many cases redevelopment, are challenges.

Managing that geographical divide is among the issues that will be a focus for Nolan Sunderman, who was named the city’s new city manager last month after serving as assistant city manager for two years.

“I think people feel a little bit of a physical divide in crossing [Interstate] 435, and we have a lot of development west of [Highway] K7 that some people don’t even realize is there as well,” said Sunderman, citing Shawnee’s geographic size of 42 square miles. “We are obviously an east-west community in terms of how we’ve developed.”

The reopening of the Aztec Theatre is among the signs of momentum for the revitalization of downtown Shawnee, said new city manager Nolan Sunderman.

His first official day as city manager was July 9, after he took the oath of office during the council meeting. Sunderman replaced Vicki Charlesworth, who plans to retire later this year after serving as interim city manager following the departure of longtime city manager Carol Gonzales. Sunderman’s employment contract with the city includes an annual salary of $135,000.

Sunderman previously worked as assistant to the city administrator at Prairie Village and, before that, as economic development director at Lansing, Kan. He earned a Bachelor of Science in political science and a master’s degree in public administration from Missouri State University in Springfield.

He’ll have opportunity to use both his economic development and administration experiences in his new role.

Shawnee has in recent years committed to revitalizing downtown and older parts of Shawnee, including the area around Nieman Road. Alongside those public works projects are some private investment, including revitalization of Aztec Theater and a new microbrewery next door.

“We have a lot of great momentum, currently,” Sunderman said. “I think people see that revitalization that’s occurring is key, and, obviously in the K7 and the Shawnee Mission Parkway area, there’s opportunities for new development.”

However, Sunderman notes, currently undeveloped land along I-435, which is now zoned for agricultural use, will be difficult to develop.

“The terrain, from a view, [is] a very pretty and nice area, but when you actually think about developing some of this property along 435 and look at the terrain, the potential for rock and the hills, it can be very difficult to develop along the corridor,” he said of the area between Johnson Drive and Shawnee Mission Parkway.

Nonetheless, the city has plans to bridge the gap between the eastern and western parts of the city, such as building a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare crossing I-435. And down the road, the city staff hopes to consider plans to improve Monticello Road as well as the intersection of Johnson Drive and I-435 to pave the way for future development in the area.

These are just a few of the dozens of projects Sunderman hopes to see move forward in the next five or 10 years.

Meanwhile, the city is developing plans for a new community center; staff will review feedback from residents in a city-wide survey, which closed Friday. It’s “a little too early” to have a complete understanding of survey results, but feedback has been “really positive” so far, Sunderman said.

Sunderman lauded the city’s “amazing staff,” adding that “it’s been great to work with the governing body, too.”

“The investment that the governing body is making in Nieman is going to be really exciting for this community — and pay off in the future,” he said. “They see that level of investment, and we’ve got great staff leading that project.”

Sunderman said the city, in preparation for a number of retirements in the next five years, plans to continue building and training staff “for the next generation coming into the workforce.”

“We’ve introduced some innovation training and [we’re] working with staff on new ideas and bringing some new concepts into the organization,” he said. “We’re really excited about that.”

Partnerships with local organizations, including the Shawnee Mission and De Soto school districts, are “key as we move forward,” Sunderman added. He’s also proud of Shawnee’s sister city program, with Listowel, Ireland; Pittem, Belgium; and Erfurt, Germany.

“I think there are so many things that make this community and this organization unique,” Sunderman said, citing strong volunteer engagement coordinated by Elizabeth Griffith. “You just don’t see things like that in other areas. We have such a high level of engagement.

“We’ve built these strong bonds, not only in our community. I think people forget we’re over 65,000 people, but many days it’s just a big family.”