By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
With hopes that they may be as successful as their San Marcos counterparts, downtown Buda business interests are campaigning for their city to join the Main Street program, which has helped transform downtown San Marcos into a lively destination through the last 20 years.
Buda city councilmembers will hear tonight from Debra Farst, state coordinator with the Texas Main Street Program. Farst will give a presentation and take questions from councilmembers about the Main Street initiative.
As Buda has grown a commercial tax base along Interstate-35 in the last five years, downtown businesses continue their struggle, due largely to the run-down condition of several storefront properties owned by absentee landlords.
But the problems also run deeper, particularly on the Main Street block bounded on the south by FM 967. Due to a lack of businesses that are open during the week, foot traffic is sparse. Business owners also complain that small signage allotments, combined with automobile traffic rushing to hit the Main Street light at FM 967, combine to make downtown establishments virtually invisible.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation administers the Main Street program, which began in the 1970s. The program provides technical expertise and consulting services for its member cities and urban neighborhoods. San Marcos was accepted into the program in 1986.
Kelly Franks, the Main Street program director in San Marcos, planned on attending tonight’s meeting in Buda, but said recently she would be unable make it due to a commitment in San Marcos.
An ardent advocate of the Main Street approach, Franks indicated that the program can work in Buda, but only if the city can forge a broad consensus in its support and make a commitment to the long haul.
“It’s a slow, methodical process,” Franks said. “Downtowns didn’t deteriorate overnight, and they don’t come back overnight.”
Downtowns declined sharply in the 1960s, after the federal interstate highway system mobilized automobile traffic and businesses set up shop along its frontage roads. By the time San Marcos entered the Main Street program, 15 vacant buildings sat on the city square.
The Main Street program in San Marcos encompasses a 24-block area around the city square. Though the odd vacancy still pops up on the square, the area now generally thrives day and night with restaurants, nightclubs, shops, government offices and professional services.
As of September 2007, according to Main Street figures, the program has resulted in $47.5 million in downtown San Marcos reinvestment.
The private sector has poured in $15.5 million to rehabilitate 263 buildings, another 15 new buildings have gone up at a cost of $5.6 million and 71 buildings have sold for $18.7 million.
The public sector has invested another $7 million, to go with $714,000 in public-private partnership.
Downtown San Marcos now boasts a net gain of 188 business starts, expansions and relocations since 1984, adding 820 jobs to the Main Street district. The downtown area has added 74 housing units and 102 residents.
Meanwhile, the city is moving along on the implementation of a comprehensive plan for downtown San Marcos, which includes more pedestrian-friendly features to shape downtown San Marcos more like the way downtowns functioned before the interstate system changed America.
“Historic preservation never goes out of style,” Franks said. “You’re never going to get Texans out of their cars, but you can create a good environment for pedestrians. We see people now strolling out at night, coming out to eat, walking four, five, six blocks. It’s nice.”
It’s the kind of vitality craved by downtown Buda business owners as they fight to keep up with commercial development along the interstate.