The Undercurrent: It takes a village – this village — to turn around downtown

 

Some friends from Cedar Hill south of Dallas drove their RV down to Glen Rose to stay at Oakdale Park over the July 4th holiday. When we met for dinner, one of their first questions was, “So what happened to the downtown square?”

This sign hangs in the window of some downtown buildings.

This sign hangs in the windows of some downtown buildings.

My friend Cindy likes to shop in Glen Rose because she always finds something unique and interesting. She immediately noticed the closed stores and vacant buildings.

Other friends from Dallas stopped by earlier this week on their way back from the Hill Country. “What happened to the square?” Gayle asked as we drove down Barnard Street and headed to Oakdale Park for a swim. She and I usually go shopping on her visits to Glen Rose. On this day, though, hardly anything was open.

Ken Devero also said the “For Sale” signs and empty former stores were the first things he noticed when he walked around the square.

Devero, the retired head of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the nonprofit that was a catalyst for downtown Fort Worth’s rebirth, took a look around Glen Rose in preparation for speaking to a standing-room-only crowd at the Somervell County Annex last month. The Glen Rose Downtown Association invited him to participate in a forum on revitalizing downtown. He had some good suggestions, but his message was clear – a turnaround won’t happen overnight and it won’t happen without a lot of cooperation.

He described a downtown as a “living organism” that evolves over time.

“Downtown Fort Worth has been reinventing itself for 30 years,” he noted. “It’s still going on.”

 Lessons from Cowtown

Keeping a downtown vibrant poses a challenge for big cities and small towns alike.

Fort Worth evolved into a model for creating a downtown renaissance, but it took 30 years and some deep pockets from the likes of the billionaire Bass brothers, especially Ed Bass. He made downtown his pet project and poured his energy, influence and money into it.

I moved to Fort Worth from Austin in the early 1980s when downtown Fort Worth was the city’s center of business and was active by day. At night, though, it was pretty scary. Hell’s Half Acre, as part of downtown used to be called, wasn’t completely in the past.

My husband worked as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram downtown. Back then there were few places nearby to meet friends for drinks or dinner. We certainly wouldn’t think of walking very far. It just wasn’t safe.

Then along came the idea to renovate the area around the historic courthouse and call it Sundance Square after the outlaw the Sundance Kid who spent some time in old Cowtown. Sundance Square started out small – just a few blocks. And it wasn’t an immediate hit with locals or tourist.

I remember writing a magazine story about this urban experiment called Sundance Square and interviewing Devero and some of the “urban pioneers” who set up business in Sundance.

There was a French restaurant called L’Ousteau, an upscale flower shop, a jewelry store, an expensive women’s clothing shop and a hotel.

Ed Bass turned a historic building into the Caravan of Dreams, an eclectic space with a small music venue that specialized in jazz, poetry readings, theater and a grotto with a geodesic dome housing a cactus garden on the top.

Gradually, more shops and restaurants came. Then art galleries. Then loft apartments and condominiums Then movie theaters, the magnificent Bass Performance Hall and on and on.

Go downtown now and you’ll likely have to park in a multi-story parking garage and make reservations way in advance  at popular restaurants such as Reata. Sundance Square’s sidewalks bustle with visitors day and night. It’s become a destination for tourists from out of town, out of state and foreign countries.

What lessons can Glen Rose learn from Cowtown?

The two share some things in common. A rich sense of history. A river. A picturesque courthouse. Friendly people.

What does Fort Worth have that Glen Rose doesn’t, aside from the obvious things like a big population and traffic?

A major destination festival, the annual Main Street Arts Festival comes to mind. So does a connection between downtown and the river. Lots of sidewalks and crosswalks to help encourage walking and biking and to protect pedestrians is another difference.

 A vision for downtown

Certainly, the soft economy has hammered Glen Rose’s downtown retail business. So have high gas prices that discourage auto travel.

The Somervell Central Appraisal District’s reappraisal of downtown properties last year also hurt. It couldn’t have come at a worse time. When two downtown buildings sold to an out-of-town buyer – and sold for top prices – that triggered a re-evaluation of other downtown properties, many of which hadn’t been appraised for some years.

Some property owners saw the values of their holdings double, triple, quadruple or even go up five times or more in value. Their tax bills soared.

But what could they do? Raise rents for tenants, many of which already were stressed by the economy? Some decided to put their properties up for sale. Downtown retail anchors such as Caylor Creek closed. Others followed.

Some shops now no longer keep regular business hours. Again, it’s the proverbial chicken-and-egg situation – if the tourists don’t come, it’s expensive for shopkeepers to stay open and heat or cool their buildings; and if the shops aren’t open, the tourists won’t come.

These days it’s common to see tourists walking around the square, peering in closed shop windows. One worries that visitors won’t come back downtown on their next trip through town. They may even tell their friends that there’s not much to do in downtown Glen Rose anymore.

So what should the vision for downtown be? At the forum, many residents contributed ideas about what they’d like to see for the future. Glen Rose Downtown Association President Steven Garcia, general manager of Holiday Inn Express & Suites in town, wrote the ideas on a big pad of paper set up on an easel. They included:

More shops.

Alternative means of transportation, such as bicycle rentals and a bicycle lane on Barnard Street.

A more pedestrian-friendly downtown.

Get people living downtown so it has a 24/7 vitality.

Expand on Glen Rose’s growing reputation as an art center.

Better communication to get the word out about what’s going on downtown.

A pedestrian bridge over the Paluxy River and another bridge for vehicular traffic. Incentives for downtown businesses.

Expansion of the River Walk.

Preserve and enhance the natural beauty of downtown.

A trolley to transport visitors from hotels to downtown, Oakdale Park and area tourist attractions.

Tour guides, a community theater, wireless Internet downtown, more live music and a Glen Rose app for smart phones.

And, of course, keep water in the river. We don’t have much control over that one. Right now Big Rocks is looking pretty dry.

What’s it going to take get to that vision? Every government entity, local civic group, association and foundation working together.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot of people,” Devero said. “It’s amazing what a half-dozen people can do for a downtown.

Only a dozen people put up the money to start Downtown Fort Worth Inc. Of course, there were some deep pockets. Many of those people are still on the nonprofit’s board 30 years later.

“It takes people who are committed to see this through on the long haul,” Devero said.

He had a couple of specific suggestions, such as putting up more of the “Eat, Shop, Stay” banners – add “Play” to the list, he advised. Perhaps downtown’s building owners could be persuaded to cut some deals to let artists use the empty spaces as studios, he also suggested.

Glen Rose is at the crossroads of opportunity and decline. The town has so much going for it — history, natural beauty, a wealth of creativity, major attractions and a quaint atmosphere. Devero said what the town needed was a “kick in the pants” to get people inspired and bring its downtown vibrancy back.

People were excited after the meeting. They were talking about ways to work together to turn around downtown. As Devero said, a downtown doesn’t lose its vitality overnight. Reversing that won’t be a quick process. It will take a village to revitalize downtown. This village.

Let’s not get distracted by other things and forget that when a city loses a downtown, it loses part of its soul. And so do we all.

 Kathryn Jones is editor of the Glen Rose Current. Contact her at editor@glenrosecurrent.com

12 Responses to The Undercurrent: It takes a village – this village — to turn around downtown

  1. Larry P. Smith Reply

    July 16, 2013 at 8:44 pm

    Kathryn,
    You hit on an issue that finally drew a lot of comments. It is great to see an issue that creates such a stir. I have been wishing that more would comment on the excellent articles in the Current, but this is only the first step. Almost a month has passed since the meeting with Ken Devero. It is time for “Action”! Some things are going on behind the scenes that we may not be aware of but,without a continuing dialogue, an informed public and “Action”(that word again),things seem to drift.
    Thank you for reminding us! The City has moved quickly to fill the vacancy at the CVB Director position and this will help. However, remember that Fort Worth`s downtown revitalization was led by private citizens and still is. Once again, I urge everyone to read Lee Hamilton`s article on local leadership. WE have strong elected leaders, but this brings us to your lead-in, “It takes a village’.
    I have been disappointed that “Economic Development” has not been re-addressed. This is an issue that will help Downtown and the entire community. The question is not whether we have the money to pay for it. The question and goal should be “How do we accomplish it under the conditions with which we are faced?”.
    Those who know me know that I like to move fast and,yes, sometimes that can get one into trouble. That is the reason for organizations and group efforts.
    I am not much for talking about issues or challenges. I prefer to solve them. As I drove away from the Network meeting this morning, these thoughts crossed my mind:
    ” If something is worth talkig about at length,it is worth doing.
    If it is worth doing,it is worth doing “NOW”!”
    I have received my “kick in the pants” from Ken Devero.
    We have the ideas,the suggestions and the community spirit. IT IS TIME FOR ACTION!

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 17, 2013 at 12:43 pm

      I couldn’t agree more, Larry. Let’s talk to the Barnard’s Mill Art League and see if they have artists that want studio space, then talk to the property owners downtown and see what can be worked out. I’ve always thought that an artists’ co-op studio/gallery would do well downtown. Why don’t I talk to Pat Barrow, Margaret Drake and Jeanne Lane and see what could be worked out and what ideas they have? Thanks for reading and for your comments!

  2. Joan Taylor Reply

    July 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm

    Very good observations Kathryn! I have faith that Glen Rose will survive, but I hope it is with Tiger pride. Glen Rose can go forward, but it will be an uphill climb if we do not prepare. Negativity will get us nowhere fast. Lets stay on track. I give thanks every day for this place I call home.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      Thanks, Joan. I feel the same way about everything you said. Thanks for reading!

  3. Connie Johnston Reply

    July 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    DINING OUT IN GLEN ROSE

    It almost seems irreverent to drive through this town and see wonderful restaurants lying vacant. I remember when Flashback, with its delightful atmosphere and delicious apricot pie, was open; this was a special dining treat. Then the rent priced them out of business. We have had several Italian restaurants and now gone. Citizens of Glen Rose would be better served if they would frequent the eateries still operational. Perhaps the city should do more to encourage new establishments and we should patronize those remaining.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      I loved Flashback, too. So many good restaurants have come and gone. We really miss Juliany’s. It was our “go to” restaurant during the week and on the weekend. Now we find ourselves going to Pastafina in Stephenville or Granbury. You’re right on, Connie.

  4. Karen Richardson Reply

    July 12, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Excellent article. Vibrant, successful downtowns are the key to any thriving, economically sound community, from the tiny Wimberley or Dripping Springs to major cities. Let’s not take our eye of the ball and relate downtown decline with other community hot topics. Downtown is vital and fundamental.

    In addition, Mr. Devero pointed out some easy-fix “housekeeping” issues, such as keeping up with repairs, clean, safe sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, landscaping and keeping things tidy. (I believe he might have seen my place with this comment. Here I’m pot calling kettle!, but I’ll clean up, promise.) We can improve our curb appeal.

    Sidewalk repairs and improved infrastructure (ADA crossings, sound system) should be budgeted in both City and County budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

    I want to make a pitch for locals to shop locals. How great is this time of year to get the best produce downtown. I challenge everyone to go a week, month, or longer and try to find what you need locally. From auto parts, groceries to livestock supplies, etc. we have it here. Support your town.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 13, 2013 at 10:02 am

      Thanks so much, Karen. Could I turn this into a letter to the editor? It would get more exposure and you make a lot of good points.

      Also, FYI, I’m working on a story about the outrageous “chemical pruning” TxDot is carrying out around this area and around the state. I’ve been looking into the herbicide Milestone VM Plus Capstone. I’ve found some data from several years back showing that it is toxic to livestock and creates “killer compost” if it drifts and gets into gardens. Any info you have about any of this? I’m also looking for some expert arborists to interview. Thanks again!

  5. CHARLEY THOMAS Reply

    July 12, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    THE LAW THAT LIMITS TAX RATE INCREASES TO A FIXED PERCENTAGE PREVENTS GOVT FROM RUNNING WILD ON RATE INCREASES. THAT LAW LIMITING THE AMOUNT OF PERCENTAGE INCREASES IN ASSESSED VALUE EACH YEAR SHOULD ALSO BE CHANGED. SUDDEN HUGE INCREASES IN ASSESSED VALUE HAVE KILLED OUR DOWNTOWN BUSINESSES. I BELIEVE WE SHOULD ADVOCATE A “LEGISLATIVE FIX” THAT LIMITES THE ASSESSED VALUE INCREASES SIMILAR TO THE TAX RATE CEILING.
    IN ADDITION, I BELIEVE A STUDY SHOULD BE MADE OF THE TEXAS COMPTROLLERS’ WAY OF SETTING ASSESSED VALUES SHOULD BE STUDIED AND CHANGED. THERE IS NO FAIRNESS WHEN DOWNTOWN VALUES SUFFER HUGE RAISES AND PROPERTIES ON HWY 67 ARE LEFT THE SAME. NOR IS IT FAIR TO ASSESS ALL DOWNTOWN PROPERTIES INCREASED VALUES BECAUSE SOLELY OF ONE OR TWO PROPERTIES HAVING BEEN SOLD AT HIGH PRICES. THIS CERTAINLY DOES NOT NECESSARILY INDICATE SIMILAR VALUE INCREASES TO ALL OTHER DOWNTOWN PROPERTIES JUST BECAUSE OF LOCATION.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 13, 2013 at 10:11 am

      Thank you, Charley. I agree 100 percent and am continuing to look into the Comptroller’s rules on this. They are having the “unintended consequences” of harming downtowns. I spoke with Sen. Birdwell about this recently and he seemed interested.

      Could I turn your comment into a letter to the editor? It would get more exposure and you make some very good points. Karen Richardson also wrote a good letter and I’m going to post that as well. We need to get people whipped up about this!

      Let’s get together for lunch soon!

      Say hi to Fran for us.

  6. Connie Johnston Reply

    July 12, 2013 at 3:46 pm

    Those are wonderful suggestions.
    I would like to add that giving the Hospital District a chance to prove itself would definitely be an asset to this community. It would be sad to see our hospital gobbled up by a nearby entity. Health care is always a plus for the citizens and to those who are contemplating residency here. If the hospital loses some of the services it provides, possibly the doctors will follow. They struggle to survive in this economy too. We don’t want to lose their valuable services.

    • Kathryn Reply

      July 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

      Thanks so much for the comments, Connie.

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