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By Debra Drescher and Sarah Blankenship, Texas Main Street Program staff
Is preservation-based downtown revitalization worth it? Does the investment of dollars and time to historic downtown improvement provide a significant return?
These questions were at the forefront 30 years ago, when the national Main Street concept and Texas Main Street Program (TMSP) were officially launched. Although there were no definitive answers to the viability of this grand leap of faith, in retrospect, it has proven to be successful. In fact, as the years have passed, thousands of Main Street communities across the country have realized tremendous accomplishments, including many in Texas.
Whether through the Main Street process or independent preservation-based downtown revitalization activities, all successful efforts have included a community-wide belief in the value of historic preservation; government willing to spur and support preservation activities; and proper stewardship of properties by owners. Much of the revitalization effort is visual—from special events that bring people downtown, to quirky cutting-edge businesses that draw shoppers into historic buildings, to building rehabilitations that turn an eyesore into a source of community pride.
“Each year, our Main Street design staff works on hundreds of projects for Texas’ 87 designated Main Street communities,” explains Terry Colley, the Texas Historical Commission’s (THC) deputy executive director. “One of their key responsibilities is assisting property owners with rehabilitations and other improvements that reflect the building’s heritage, its context, and business use.”
Colley adds that people are often surprised to learn that significant building improvements are not always expensive. While the TMSP design staff works on many high-dollar projects, they also work on improvements that cost a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.
“Preservation work does not have to cost a lot to be effective as long as sound preservation principles are applied—keeping a historic downtown vital is a constant and incremental process,” Colley says. “Changes may happen quickly, or take many years for even a small improvement. Each change, whether big or small, significantly adds to the fabric of Main Street—even something as simple and inexpensive as a new sign or window display can add vitality.”
For example, Eagle Pass’ Main Street program recently upgraded several buildings in its historic business district. A recertified Main Street community since 2010, much of Eagle Pass’ success can be traced to significant support by the municipal government to spur downtown revitalization.
According to Eagle Pass Main Street Manager Joe Cruz, the city and community focused their efforts on a façade restoration program.
“So far, we’ve received a lot of positive feedback from the media and local residents about what these projects have created in our downtown. The benefits are visible,” Cruz said, adding that the TMSP design team has provided high-quality renderings that significantly contribute to the preservation of downtown buildings. “Not only are these restoration projects creating a better image, they’re also recreating a pride of ownership in our store owners. We plan to take our downtown back one store at a time.”
Eagle Pass resident Angelica Hesles, owner of Hesles Downtown, was proud to be the first participant in Main Street’s façade restoration program. Her company started as a dry goods store, and has developed into a combination of outdoor gear, dry goods, and a newly added ice cream and yogurt parlor. She said the restoration of her store has drawn positive attention from locals, surrounding communities, and media.
“Some people come to visit thinking it’s a new store in the downtown, and many old timers pass by and tell me about the memories they have of it when they were just children,” said Hesles, whose family has been operating from the same location since 1934. “I encourage other downtown store owners to participate in façade restoration programs so they can also experience all these benefits.”
A different yet equally effective Main Street project was recently completed in Seguin, where existing business Gift and Gourmet moved downtown and undertook a significant rehabilitation, including the removal of a large slipcover, which revealed second-floor and transom windows.
Gift and Gourmet owner Mary Reiley said, “Moving downtown and restoring a historic building was basically a five-month advertisement. Every time people drove by, they would see the reconstruction and would want to find out what was going on and what was moving in.”
She adds that it ultimately drew new customers, and the grand opening was a far greater success than she ever expected.
“As people come downtown, they notice our beautiful building,” Reiley said. “The color and the architecture strikes their attention, and they stroll in to shop. Sales have increased three-fold.”
With additional work on the property and plans for future work, she believes that if all goes well, she will pay for the building in about 10 years. Reiley adds that the restoration was a good plan financially, and it “made me feel like a proud parent—it feels good to give back to my hometown. I feel that the project is something the whole town can be proud of.”
Another example of a successful Main Street project recently occurred in Decatur, although it wasn’t clear from the outset if the building’s color would become a controversial issue. The TMSP does not dictate a specific color palette; however, it recommends individuality for buildings and supports shades of color that are compatible with the rest of the historic downtown. Bright colors can be used, but TMSP staff suggests using them for accent colors rather than the entire façade.
In Decatur, this philosophy was put to the test when Fuzzy’s Taco Shop moved into a historic Main Street building. The original bright paint scheme was a bit overwhelming for the downtown, so the local Main Street manager, business representatives, and TMSP staff worked together to find a solution—utilizing softer colors and complementary tones—that worked for everyone.
To learn more about the TMSP’s services and application process, please visit our website or call TMSP State Coordinator Debra Drescher at 512.463.5758.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Medallion.
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