Former home of Wolfe's Camera to become site of Topeka's multimillion-dollar downtown innovation campus

India Yarborough
Topeka Capital-Journal
The former location of Wolfe's Camera, along with two adjacent buildings, is expected to become the home of Topeka's ASTRA Innovation Center.

GO Topeka has found a home for its forthcoming innovation campus.

The local economic development agency announced Thursday it partnered with BioRealty Inc. to close on multiple properties in downtown Topeka, as part of the multimillion-dollar effort to stand up an innovation campus that will serve as the hub for Topeka's Plug and Play accelerator program and other innovative endeavors in the capital city.

The campus is expected to be dubbed the ASTRA Innovation Center and will be located in the former home of Wolfe's Camera Shop, which closed earlier this summer after 97 years in business.

The ASTRA Innovation Center is expected to encompass three storefronts on that block — 635, 633 and 627 S. Kansas.

The acronym "ASTRA," according to GO Topeka, will stand for Animal Science, Technology, Research and Agriculture.

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According to Katrin Bridges, senior vice president of innovation for GO Topeka, the Wolfe's building and its adjacent properties were a natural fit for the campus. And she said the two viability studies GO Topeka initiated last year resulted in a similar conclusion.

"Interestingly, both of those developers independently came back with the recommendation that the innovation center should be located in downtown Topeka," Bridges said, "because there have been so many investments made over the past 10 years in terms of entertainment and restaurants and coffee shops.

"The revitalization of downtown is so visible, so the location right in the middle of that district really would help us take advantage of that momentum and create that amenity-rich environment that innovative startups are looking for."

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The ASTRA Innovation Center, according to GO Topeka, is expected to be roughly 60,000 square feet and should include such amenities as wet labs, flexible work and meeting spaces, office space for business research and innovation, and a rooftop venue for events.

Bridges said BioRealty — a national real-estate development firm headquartered in California — will be in charge of the center's build out. She said they aren't quite ready to start construction, as they're finalizing agreements that should enable BioRealty to begin such work, but she hopes to move to that phase of the project later this year.

“We are delighted to be working with a terrific partner in GO Topeka to bring a world-class innovation center to downtown," said Stan Wendzel, BioRealty's managing director. "This initial project, which itself will have a very positive long-term impact in the region, is only the beginning step of what we and GO Topeka envision as a large, multi-phase innovation campus or district in Topeka."

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Standing up the ASTRA Innovation Center is expected to cost about $14.5 million. Topeka and Shawnee County's Joint Economic Development Organization board voted earlier this year to contribute $5.871 million to the project, which is expected to create up to 40 new full-time jobs in coming years and result in an estimated economic impact over 10 years of more than $1.3 billion.

The innovation center is expected to be pivotal in helping Topeka attract and retain startups coming to the area for months at a time to participate in the city's Plug and Play accelerator program. That program was announced in 2019 and should bring about 20 startups focused on animal health and agricultural technology to the capital city each year.

"It has taken the commitment and the hard work of so many people along the way," Bridges said, "to get us to this point."