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Awakening a sleeping giant: Downtown will benefit from renewed efforts in development, advocates say

“Hey, let’s go grab a bite to eat.”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Let’s just go downtown and we’ll figure it out.”

That’s an imaginary conversation envisioned by Eric Evans, managing director of the Lyric Theatre, when he described his goal for downtown Brownwood.

Evans is part of a small and loose-knit committee organized by Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ray Tipton. Tipton refers to the committee as simply the Downtown Committee, which also includes Marshal McIntosh, who is the marketing communication manager for the City of Brownwood and Brownwood Municipal Development District; Jodie Armstrong, who with her husband, Don, owns Brownwood Music; Jamie Munson of Landmark Life; and businessman Hank Hunter.

“Our goals are to get people down the street,” Evans said in his office inside the Lyric. The theatre is on Center Avenue, a street that would become part of a bustling and active downtown district, which would include shops, restaurants and entertainment venues if goals become reality.

“Our goals are for people to be having an experience when they get to downtown that is different than they may experience when they’re driving down Commerce, and it’s something that’s pleasurable, and it’s something that they want in their lives, where they can come down here and they can shop, and they can eat.”

Guy Andrews, executive director of the Brownwood Municipal Development District (BMDD), said those goals represent more than just talk. Andrews is confident there will be a more “vibrant” downtown as the BMDD, other organizations and individuals work together to redevelop Brownwood’s large, historical downtown district.

“You had a downtown area that’s kind of gone to sleep,” Andrews said. “We’re awakening a sleeping giant. It’s really pretty amazing.”

Downtown development is part of a triad of BMDD priorities in what Andrews described as “community development.” The other two priorities are addressing housing issues and addressing the “skills gap” — an effort to ensure high school graduates have skills to work in local industry if they choose, Andrews said.

The BMDD is making funds available for some downtown projects. Some are underway such as building improvement grants the BMDD makes available to businesses that qualify.

Other projects are yet to come — notably, the one by developers Jeff Tucker and Mark Andrews (no relation to Guy Andrews) of Pecan Bayou Enterprises. The partnership recently bought the former Weakley-Watson Sporting Goods building from the Blagg family and has plans for future, though as-yet undisclosed, downtown development.

Funds for downtown development could also include helping the owners of the former Kroger and Hasting’s buildings get those properties out of the flood plain making them more marketable, Andrews said.

“We’re leveraging money that would come from private sources, the chamber and the MDD,” Andrews said. “The burden isn’t on one single organization. I think you’re going to see some amazing changes.”

There have been several catalysts in spurring the interest in downtown development including the $4 million restoration of the Lyric Theatre

Another catalyst: In May 2016, Brownwood voters approved the conversion of what was then the Brownwood Economic Development Corp. into the BMDD. A municipal development district is permitted by law to do community development projects the previous entity could not do.

“When we converted from an economic development corporation to a municipal development district, the reason we did that is, we realized that just recruiting manufacturing and primary jobs was not all that Brownwood needed. We always need manufacturing and primary jobs and continue to recruit those. However, a Type A (economic development corporation) like we had, primarily focused on those two elements of economic development.

“The MDD structure allows us to fund a wider variety of projects. Community development and economic development have to go hand-in-hand in order for (economic development efforts) to be successful.”

Marketing, social media and downtown banners are spreading the message about downtown, and a website called “Visit Brownwood” — a joint effort by the BMDD and chamber of commerce — is under construction.

In his office at the Lyric, Evans continued describing his futuristic views of the downtown.

“I can envision the downtown area being a destination for lunch, or a destination in the evening,” Evans said.

“Hey, do you want to go out tonight?”

“Do you want to do something?”

“Yeah, let’s just go downtown and we’ll figure it out.”

 

Advocates describe the vibrancy they hope to see downtown Brownwood

 

Marshal McIntosh

McIntosh is marketing communication manager for the City of Brownwood and Brownwood Municipal Development District.

“This last year I proposed to our (municipal development board) to have more of a downtown community development-based initiative,” McIntosh said.

One of the first projects has been to increase the downtown’s visibility, and to implement something quickly and visible.

McIntosh designed the banners attached to the tops of light poles along Center Avenue, which were printed locally at Willie’s T’s.

“Visibility, and visible progress is what we wanted as an initial phase,” McIntosh said. “We introduced holiday banners during Christmas and have now replaced those with downtown banners, that create a flag gateway into the downtown area. This was step one, to start the visual improvement of downtown, and to let people know changes are coming.

“We have exciting plans for the future such as signage, wayfinding directional signs and assisting with beautifications efforts for downtown.”

These improvements will continue current progress and create a better business environment where residents and visitors will want to shop, dine, and have experiences in the downtown district, McIntosh said.

In addition to the banners, the BMDD increased social media marketing specifically for downtown, creating a collaborated effort for marketing merchants on “Downtown Brownwood” on Facebook.

Later this month, a campaign will be launched called Visit Brownwood, which will showcase Brownwood with the focus of tourism and destination marketing, McIntosh said. The Visit Brownwood campaign has already launched @VisitBrownwood on Instagram, promoting the community. Visit Brownwood initiative will also work hand in hand increasing the marketing for our downtown.

McIntosh envisions shops and restaurants that provide what he termed “experience shopping” and “experience dining. 

“We have to create a retail mix that allows businesses to flourish together, and to thrive off of each other,” McIntosh said. 

“Also we are seeing our downtown businesses owners collaborate with each other more, which ultimately benefits everyone. Success breeds success.”

McIntosh cited as an example the Discover Downtown events that showcased what McIntosh called “the collaborative spirit of downtown merchants working together” with extended hours during the past holiday season.

While some have referenced Fredericksburg as a standard, McIntosh said, “I don’t think it’s fair to compare us to any other town. I think the best comparison is making the best version of Brownwood’s downtown. We are so unique because of the Camp Bowie days, the way our downtown was built. It was built for a very large population. And that may present challenges but also gives us opportunity, because own downtown is much larger than the others.

“Fredericksburg does Fredericksburg well. We’re going to do Brownwood well.”

A self-described idealist, McIntosh says he sees potential and sees good in our community. “I see the great people who serve here,” McIntosh said. “And I see a lot of different organizations working to make this community better, and that’s truly motivating.

“I see our city employees that are improving our community each and every single day. I see on the code enforcement side, actively working on creating more downtown friendly codes, I see volunteers who spend their most valuable resource – their time. I see good in our community, and I hope that encourages others to see the good we currently have and we continue to build upon that.”

McIntosh said he encourages residents and visitors to follow along the soon-to-launch Visit Brownwood campaign, and to visit the Downtown Brownwood Facebook page.

 

Eric Evans

Eric Evans is managing director of the Lyric Theatre.

“The downtown being better is going to be better for us,” Evans said. “When there are more stores, when there are more service opportunities like restaurants, even if it’s like a candy kitchen or ice cream place, any number of those types of environments are going to give people who come here a better experience.

“When we think of the downtown area, it’s part of an experience. And when you think of experience, that’s why it’s good to have greenery. It’s good to have colorful banners. It’s good to have clean streets. It’s good to have sidewalks that aren’t cracked and broken. It’s good to have paved streets that are easier to walk on and maneuver through.”

Places to eat that are already establish include the Turtle, Steves’ Market and Deli, Tres Leches, Fiesta Fillipino, Flower Power Lunchbox and Red Wagon, Evans said.

“Everybody — everybody — is going to appreciate the downtown being better.”

Evans listed several factors he sees as significant in downtown development, particularly the renovation of the Lyric Theatre, which was completed in 2014. He also believes the addition of Emily Crawford to the city administration — first as director of the then-Economic Development Corp. and now as city manager — has been a large factor.

“Emily brought a perspective and a set of knowledge that bubbled up. ... she knows the people,” Evans said. “She’s bringing a wealth of knowledge and an understanding of the community.”

Like McIntosh, Evans said Brownwood “is certainly not a Fredericksburg. We have a lot of similarities in the sense that I think we can build on tourism. That’s what Fredericksburg has done.”

Within a few years, Evans said, thinks there will be “more vibrancy” to the downtown. “I think our daily census — people walking the streets, people driving the streets — is going to be up,” Evans said. “People want to be where people are. I do not believe the downtown is going to be for big box stores. But I do believe we’re going to inspire the entrepreneur spirit.”

Evans said he thinks the recent purchase of the former Weakley-Watson Sporting Good building by Pecan Bayou Enterprises LLC “fits in beautifully. It’s a historical restoration. Part of what is driving downtowns and their success is the historical component of these downtowns. People love to go back and experience history.”

 

Jodie Armstrong

Armstrong and her husband, Don, own Brownwood Music.

“If you’re wanting to know what is important to me, I feel like the Internet is taking away retail tax dollars,” Armstrong said. “I’m a professional shopper. I come to the (Downtown Committee) as a business owner and a professional shopper.

“I like to go out of town and shop at antique shops. I don’t know if this is my phrase or not, but I call this ‘experience shopping.’ It’s my new word and I’m saying this because so many people are online. They buy, buy, buy, buy, buy — shoes and dresses and certain things — but the thing that is fun to go do, is experience some nostalgia, some history, some old stuff.”

Armstrong said when she goes antique shopping, it isn’t always necessarily just to buy. “You’re going and you’re experiencing something that happened 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and it brings back extremely happy memories, or actually laughter, or you thought, oh my gosh, look how they dressed. So it’s an experience.

“We’ve got to bring that to Brownwood. Missing tax dollars ... the best way to put that back in is to start developing our downtown to attract wine tasting shops, cheese shops, and we’ve got to have some antique shops, arts and cultures, some things like that — that people want to come see, touch, smell, feel, experience. And I feel like if we can ever get in that direction, we’re going to end up not only putting tax dollars back in, but we’re going to bring tourism.”

Armstrong said it’s necessary to create “the whole package. It can’t just be about industry. It can’t be just about the Lyric Theatre or some concerts or the Reunion again, or whatever. We still have to provide (visitors) an experience to come and want to stay overnight, a destination.”

Armstrong said she’d like to see a downtown that allows her to park every weekend and walk, and visit and art center, have some wine and cheese tasting, visit four or five antique shops. She’d like to see, maybe once a month, a venue for live music and other attractions such as an art walk.

Armstrong said downtown development is a component in attracting industry. Before an industry moves in, she said, the industry wants to know “what they offer their family culturally. Do you want to move here if there’s nothing going on downtown, there’s nowhere to shop, there’s nothing cool to do. And I believe we’re moving in the right direction. I think we have a chamber, I think we have a city administration now that’s on board.

“It’s a real personal thing for me because the more downtown shops that are going to get visited, the more (Brownwood Music) is going to get looked at.”

 

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