By Emily Koller, Texas Historical Commission Planner
What do you do when you’re trying to get the word out about available property in your historic downtown? Or if you’re looking for business space? Signage, word-of-mouth, local realtors, and ads have traditionally publicized vacancies, but online tools reach a much wider audience. Unfortunately, they don’t always cater specifically to a preservation-minded crowd.
With that in mind, the Texas Historical Commission recently helped develop DowntownTX.org, a web-based, user-friendly platform to support the work of historic preservation-minded revitalization programs. Simply described, it’s an online building inventory featuring historic property listings for dozens of participating Texas downtowns.
Texas Main Street Program (TMSP) managers and historic preservation officers consistently cite the challenge of vacant and underutilized properties as one of their biggest obstacles to downtown revitalization. The THC’s Town Square Initiative (TSI) has worked to create a holistic approach to addressing the difficulty of increasing and influencing the market exposure of downtown properties.
In late 2014, the TSI and TMSP completed a survey of downtown buildings across the state. With a response rate of 92 percent (nearly 80 communities), the results indicated a first-floor vacancy rate of 17 percent and an upper-floor vacancy rate of 74 percent. These statistics helped initiate DowntownTX.org, which changes the way city programs manage and share data; more importantly, it connects interested investors, developers, and entrepreneurs to investment opportunities.
Many websites market commercial real estate, but none focus exclusively on historic commercial real estate. Databases can help downtown programs inventory buildings, and many tools collect and store historic resource survey data; however, DowntownTX.org is the first online tool to combine all three functions.
The site launched for Preservation Month in May 2017 with 12 Imagine the Possibilities tours in TMSP and CLG (Certified Local Government) cities stretching from Harlingen to Texarkana. The tours showcased available downtown properties to engage people who have imagined running a business, owning a building, or living downtown.
“Between the tours and our agency’s media efforts, the site generated some really impressive statistics for the launch,” says Brad Patterson, director of the THC’s Community Heritage Development Division. “We’ve seen a measurable uptick in inquiries, and actual building sales and leasing contracts are underway that we can attribute to the increased visibility.”
The concept for DowntownTX.org began to take shape in early 2015. With an initial working project name of the “Downtown Online Inventory,” three THC programs—TSI, TMSP, and CLG—collaborated to create a development framework and designate funding. The project received a grant from the Still Water Foundation in the fall of 2015 and used the CLG grant program to support the costs associated with early phases.
“DowntownTX.org is unique in that it features two user interfaces both running from a Google Map-based platform,” Patterson explains. “The public interface largely focuses on showcasing investment opportunities and historic building information in the larger downtown context.”
The site also highlights incentives, provides a direct connection to valid local contacts, and clarifies the local development process. The user-friendly design makes it easy to scan the entire state, and provides distinctive online search capabilities. For example, properties can be filtered by National Register designation to help real estate developers find listings eligible for historic tax incentive programs.
As a complete inventory of a downtown district, the application also highlights historic building information (photos, original name and use, year built, and brief building histories), allowing the public to find valuable data that’s typically non-digitized and difficult to track down. In addition, the software features an administrative dashboard allowing each online community to access a tailored homepage to manage its building and business data. The dashboard stores information beyond what is publicly displayed and offers private functionality to save additional documents, photos, and reports. The dashboard also assists current program managers and serves as a resource that will withstand personnel and political changes. This administrative functionality is proving to be a hit with Main Street managers.
“DowntownTX.org has improved our team’s organizational efforts, tracking abilities, and educational endeavors,” says Michelle Mahfouz, the City of Caldwell’s Main Street manager. “This tool saves time, improves efficiency, and is administratively simple to use. I’m thankful that the THC team developed it to assist our cities as we market our historic downtowns.”
Is It Working?
Although it’s too early to provide definitive data on the impact, there is enough anecdotal information and actual changes in the status of buildings to demonstrate early success. In general, cities have reported an increase in inquiries from a more geographically diverse audience. Properties that have sat for years are suddenly seeing interest. For example, the 1932 Post Office in Harlingen, which over the years has been converted into an upscale office building, was shown three times in June after being on the market for years.
One of the best examples of the project’s impact is in Palestine, an original pilot city that hosted 70 people for an Imagine the Possibilities tour in early May. Greg Laudadio of Palestine’s Economic Development Corporation and Main Street program reported multiple property inquiries; within a month, one building on the tour was under contract and another space had been leased.
The historic preservation officer for the city, Jacob Morris, said the increase in activity from the tour and website launch was not fully anticipated. He was surprised by the number of inquiries from existing property owners—especially those with underutilized and vacant properties—about options for rehabilitation and mixed use.
“The overall level of optimism regarding downtown has increased among people who may have had some reservations, which is a great development,” Morris said, adding that
Palestine is already anticipating next year’s tour, which will feature vacant properties and those rehabilitated as a result of this year’s efforts.
The DowntownTX.org software is available to any interested TMSP or CLG community. TSI staff will work with cities to determine the scope of the project and assist in implementation.
“DowntownTX.org will continue to evolve to meet the needs of local programs,” Patterson said, adding that plans are underway to expand programming and develop workshops to help property owners and prospective buyers better understand considerations for rehabilitating historic downtown commercial buildings. “This is just the beginning.”
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of The Medallion.