San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

July 18th, 2008
The Myth of Jones: The slow path in downtown Buda

The Myth of Jones: A Column
Editor at Large

BUDA – Some around Buda have wondered how downtown vitalization could be a big campaign issue in the city council election, then lose steam in the council chamber. But maybe that tide began to turn this week.

The council, which declined to apply for the Texas Main Street program earlier this month, discussed alternatives to the Main Street program at Tuesday’s session. We actually heard talk about code enforcement on blighted properties in the context of a council meeting, rather than a candidate forum. We heard about a federal matching grant program and a section in the Texas local government code allowing for public improvement districts. We didn’t see action, but we heard discussion, and that’s a start.

Downtown Buda is such a large problem that one can’t really see it without standing back two years, nor can he sense the urgency without standing on Main Street at high noon during a weekday. Put it like this: the city, the state and Buda’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) have kicked in a combined $2.5 million for a truck bypass route, Main Street beautification, billboards and directional signs for downtown businesses, all of which are complete within the last two or three years. All those improvements are important. And downtown Buda is still a blighted nowhere, which speaks to the area’s condition two years ago.

So, to those who preach urgency, we say, “Remember, downtown will not turn around quickly, whatever the city does. We understand that a couple businesses have left the premises in the last year without replacement. Not good. Main Street looks way too much like an old-school ghost town and the new Buda resident just isn’t cool enough for shabby chic. But downtown Buda was an untrimmed pile of semi traffic two years ago, and that situation has improved, however imperfectly. Furthermore, not even the Main Street program would work a fast miracle. Kelly Franks, a Texas Main Street advocate who runs the Main Street program in San Marcos, will tell you straight up: It is a ‘slow, methodical process.'”

To those who preach patience, we say, “It certainly is a sad state of affairs that so much of Buda’s policy making leadership is out of town during the day. They have jobs in Austin, because that’s where the jobs are. And isn’t that both a cause and effect of the problem? How can they relate to the utter lack of life in the middle of their city during the heart of the day? The state of downtown Buda is not an abstract policy equation entirely contained within facts. It is a flat, dead, bloodless reality. Thank heaven for the few entrepreneurs trying to make it happen on Main Street. They are heroes in this town. They provide good products and services, and they’re going broke. That’s because downtown is never simply the sum of its private enterprise. Downtown is where the city shows its face, brings its people together and makes its self-image. This is an intrinsically public endeavor requiring public attention. And if it’s true that downtown has received $2.5 million of public investment in the last couple years, it’s also true that the investment followed decades of neglect, and not just from absentee property owners. Government can’t do everything, but it does have a role and an interest downtown. The center of the city, having no pulse, is all but dead. That is a reflection on government, and a call to further action.”

One is struck dumb by the tone deafness in some of the council discussion about downtown Buda, until he stops to remember that it’s just a function of where and what Buda is. The council includes intelligent, capable people with good jobs in the capital city. It’s not a commentary on their aptitude that they aren’t hip to the agonizing deadness of downtown Buda. It’s just a commentary on their absence.

For example, the matter of sandwich board signs for downtown businesses came up Tuesday night. Downtown business owners believe permission to use such signs would be helpful. But Councilmember Sandra Tenorio was concerned that the sidewalk would clutter with sandwich board signs if every business were allowed to use one. And Mayor Bobby Lane said sandwich board signs would “change the whole historical feel of downtown.”

Now, if you spend your weekdays in downtown Buda, you know these concerns are baseless. Downtown Buda has about same historical feel as a graveyard, and about as much life. In truth, judging from old photos of Main Street, it once, decades ago, buzzed with commercial activity and signage covering entire sides of buildings. If we really want Main Street to capture its historical essence, we permit more signage and promote commerce.

Furthermore, the sidewalk on the business side of Main Street is in absolutely no danger of clutter from sandwich board signs. Half of the storefronts are empty, so they’ve got no use for sandwich boards, and you can stand on Main Street downtown for more than two hours during a weekday without counting a dozen people on that business sidewalk. A little clutter might actually do some good. At least we’d have something to look at.

Other discussions were more promising, if not entirely so. For example, Councilmember Cathy Chilcote, taking the lead on the downtown issue, asked City Attorney Jim Duvall to see what mechanisms might be in place for the city if the Main Street program isn’t in the cards. Duvall came back with a section of the local government code making provision for Public Improvement Districts (PID).

Basically, the PID is established after a majority of those who own the majority of property within some area sign a petition, which then goes to the city council. The council passes a resolution and the PID is formed after a period for public comment. The city then levies assessments of some sort against the properties within the district, and that money supports the issue of debt for a wide variety of improvements within the district.

The initiative involves numerous details. Simply drawing the district is challenging enough. The district probably would have to range well beyond the downtown business center because a large amount of the Main Street property is owned by absentee landlords Jeanette Chelf and Mary Ogden, who aren’t likely to sign such a petition. Making the assessments equitable is another puzzle.

“It’s going to be a time consuming project,” Duvall said. “I would be surprised if you get this finished in time for the next budget process … I’m not saying this is easy. I’m not saying this is practical. I’m saying it’s a vehicle you can use if you have a mind to do it.”

The interim city manager, Sarah Mangham, brought up an idea taken to her by EDC Executive Director Warren Ketteman. Buda could apply for the Preserve America program, which offers matching grants to member cities. Of course, it involves a lengthy application process, and the city wouldn’t receive money without putting up as much money itself.

As for a quick improvement, something that would give downtown business owners hope right away, Chilcote pointed to the obvious. Grants for property owners would only work if those owners want to improve their properties. And it is precisely the problem on Main Street that Chelf and Ogden plainly appear to be disinterested. So, when the carrot doesn’t work, go to the stick.

“I think there are some avenues we have for bringing in some of these absentee property owners in terms of code enforcement,” Chilcote said.

Chilcote urged that the code officers go to work on dilapidated Main Street properties, buildings that have clearly been neglected and stand empty. The city does have the authority to enforce its building codes.

To this point, though, the city has been unwilling. Nor did the city take action Tuesday night. But if the Main Street program is too expensive right now, and if the application process for Preserve America is too lengthy, and if the creation of a PID is complicated, that doesn’t mean the city can do nothing else.

Code enforcement is right there, waiting to be executed. All the city has to do is enforce its own codes on properties that are plainly deficient. The blight on Main Street is right there for everyone to see. One storefront, which almost never opens, is clearly being used as a warehouse in the middle of the business district.

Code enforcement won’t solve the Main Street problem, but it would quickly attack the most irksome trouble, capture the attention of absentee property owners, and maybe give downtown business owners some sense of progress. And downtown Buda, far behind as it is, needs to constantly sense progress. A sense of progress is hope.

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