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Meet some of the folks working to ‘Bring Back the Boulevard.’ Business owners giving time, equipment to the effort. – The Topeka Capital-Journal

Russell Torrey, right, co-owner of Wamego-based Torrey Bros Inc., stands alongside his daughter Ashton Torrey, and company foreman Clay Patterson, outside of South Topeka Boulevard on Monday morning. Torrey volunteered his equipment to sandblast sections of the railroad bridge in the background.

About six months into the local effort to clean up a stretch of S.W. Topeka Boulevard, volunteers are making much of the behind-the-scenes work possible.

Whether it be mowing vacant lots, sandblasting train-bridge walls or providing Topeka’s “Bring Back the Boulevard” group with equipment, business owners volunteering their time and machinery have become the driving force behind beautification efforts along the boulevard’s more run-down sections.

One such business owner is Russell Torrey, co-owner of Wamego-based Torrey Bros Inc., which has served the Topeka and Manhattan areas since 1989.

“We’ve been blasting in Topeka for over 30 years,” Torrey said. “We do a lot of swimming pool work. Part of the reason we can make a contribution is because of customers who have been very loyal over the years.”

Torrey, his daughter and a company foreman spent three days on Topeka Boulevard earlier this month, using their 8-ton truck and accompanying air compressor to sandblast the wing walls of the train bridge that crosses over the boulevard near S.W. 57th St.

Improvements to the railroad bridge are slowly taking place thanks to volunteers with Bring Back the Boulevard.

The bridge walls had become discolored over time, Torrey said, and some sections were also covered in graffiti or mold.

He estimates the project would typically cost about $10,000 — but Torrey didn’t charge for the job, as he was excited for the opportunity to give back to the community.

“I think it’s uplifting, very positive,” Torrey said of local Bring Back the Boulevard efforts.

“A little bit can go a long way,” added his daughter, Ashton.

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Retired landscaper takes charge of cleanup efforts

Torrey is one of several local business owners who have been recruited by retired landscaper Lynn Hultquist to tackle various tasks along Topeka Boulevard.

“When Lynn called, he said, ‘Russ, we want to clean all this up,'” Torrey said. “And we know it’s going to cost a lot. We have no money. … I said, ‘Lynn, why don’t I just clean this up for you?’ It was pretty much because of his energy. He was enthused.”

Torrey isn’t the only business owner to tout Hultquist’s commitment to the project and his enthusiasm for the beautification effort, which was first announced in February and aims to improve visitors’ first impressions of the capital city’s southernmost corridor.

Monique Glaudé, the city of Topeka's ombudsman, helps distribute safety vests and trash pickers last February. The Bring Back the Boulevard group met to start clearing trash and debris alongside the roadway for Earth Day.

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“I’ve known Lynn for a long time,” said James Widman, owner of Topeka-based Cornerstone Landscape Studio. “He’s got a heart like not very many people I know. He just wants to help. He wants to improve the neighborhood. He wants to improve the city.”

Last month, Widman donated the use of his company’s mini skid-steer loader so Hultquist could clear sidewalks around the train bridge.

“He’s reached out to me a few times, and anytime he’s working on that volunteer stuff, I don’t hesitate to let him use the equipment,” Widman said. “I’m just glad to see somebody doing it.”

According to Hultquist, the Bring Back the Boulevard effort is constantly in need of volunteers.

He said a group of folks go out on Saturdays twice a month for a few hours to make progress step by step.

“We had 12 (people coming out) to begin with,” Hultquist said. “Then, it was four, three, two, one. And then a couple weeks ago, we had 12. What we’re trying to do is find groups who will take this on.”

Topeka City councilman Tony Emerson uses a skid steer with sweeper attachment to clean up the mediums along South Topeka Boulevard during an Earth Day cleanup event.

Private business chips in

Capitol Federal Savings Bank is one such group that has answered the call.

According to bank executive Ken Scott and team member Matthew Whitehead, CapFed employees spent time recently working to clear vacant land the bank owns just southeast of Topeka Boulevard and S.W. 37th St. They also partnered with the owner of some adjacent lots to expand their reach.

“We knew we had a responsibility as a property owner in that area to do our part, even though it was a small part,” Scott said.

Whitehead said he also coordinated with the Topeka Police Department to safely relocate homeless people who were staying in that area.

“Then, once we got the go-ahead from the police department that all the stuff was taken that needed to be,” Whitehead said, “we had a company go in and start clearing everything out.”

Scott said they plan to maintain the area once a month moving forward, and they hope their contributions to Bring Back the Boulevard make a difference.

“I believe it ties into the overall enhancement of our community,” Scott said.

He added that Topeka Boulevard cleanup efforts won’t be — and haven’t been — instantaneous, but noted progress is being made.

“Anything worth having takes a while,” he said.

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More volunteers needed as project progresses

Signs made by Knox Signs & Graphics were made at half the cost to help promote the Bring Back the Boulevard initiative.

People driving down S.W. Topeka Boulevard may also have noticed a couple of blue-and-white signs informing passerby of the cleanup initiative. Those signs were created by Knox Signs & Graphics.

Eric Knox, owner of the business, said he donated a smaller sign earlier in the year and created two additional signs for the group, each at half price.

Hultquist said Knox has also volunteered to let Hultquist use his skid-steer loader to do soil work around the train bridge. And Hultquist plans to rent a mower attachment to mow a few acres along Topeka Boulevard that he says have been neglected.

“Mowing covers a multitude of curb-appeal sins,” Hultquist said.

Rob Thorndyke, owner of Wildcat Landscape, has stepped in to help with mowing on at least one occasion. In the spring, he used one of his company’s tractors and spent a Sunday afternoon clearing a couple big lots so they could be maintained with smaller equipment.

“The community’s been pretty good to me with a lot of work over the years,” Thorndyke said. “If we can do some things here and there to give back, every little bit does help.”

Hultquist said the Bring Back the Boulevard group is gaining momentum.

“The biggest thing is we need more people to come out and help,” he added.

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Streaks of vehicles highlight the 3700 block of South Topeka Boulevard on Wednesday. The group Bring Back the Boulevard has been cleaning up the stretch and hopes to inspire more volunteers to donate their time to the effort.

Hultquist said those interested in volunteering time or equipment to assist with cleanup efforts may contact him directly by calling 785-608-7871 or emailing [email protected].

According to Kent Lammers, one of the founders of Bring Back the Boulevard, today’s ongoing volunteer work is “just the beginning.”

“We anticipate more commercial development, better infrastructure and a renewed commitment from our city leaders,” Lammers said. “I am hopeful this can be a model of success to duplicate in other areas of our city in which similar improvements can be made.”