In the midst of revival, former mill set to take on new life in downtown Buda

Three more buildings on the century-old Buda Mill & Grain property in downtown Buda are expected to be available for lease by early next year, which could attract commerce to a neglected part of the downtown historic district.



Dodi Ellis and her son Saenger Ellis have spent the better part of the past four years transforming the 8.75-acre property that once belonged to a grain company into a commercial development that could one day host a variety of retail businesses.



The Ellises hope to lease three spaces to a fitness center, winery and other mixed-retail use in the coming months.



The Buda Mill & Grain Co., which takes its name from one of the companies that owned the mill in the early part of the 20th century, is already leasing two building spaces to Sweet Cakes 4 U and Salon One 12, a bakery and salon, respectively.



"People realize that this doesn't need to be an old mill anymore," Saenger said. "People are ready for it to be something that's useful for this day and age for this type of setting that it's in."



But Saenger and his mother are also drawing on the site's rich history to create a sense of community in Buda, they said. Some members in the community say the former mill was once an eyesore, but with the help of the Ellises, the vision of transforming it into an iconic landmark in the city may one day come to fruition.



"With all the growth going on, it becomes increasingly important for people to know what this area was, who was here before them, what it was that brought people here," Saenger said.



Downtown evolution



In the midst of forming a downtown master plan that will guide future development in the historic district, the city has been trying to invigorate the once-sleepy downtown, where two years ago, activity slowed after 5 p.m. when shop owners would close their stores for the day.



"There is a lot of interest in getting downtown revitalized and getting it to a point where it is a productive part of the city," Councilman Bobby Lane said. "I am fully in support of that."



The Buda Mill & Grain is being seen as an anchor on the south side of the historic district and would meet several objectives of the vision for the future of downtown, such as increasing connectivity and walkability between shops.



Saenger serves on the downtown master plan committee alongside Julie Renfro, who owns Tavern on Main, a bar and restaurant in downtown Buda.



Also an active member of the Buda Downtown Merchants Group, Renfro said the Buda Mill & Grain development will continue the evolution of downtown that began with the 2012 approval of a voter proposition to loosen the city's liquor laws, paving the way for restaurants such as Tavern on Main and Cleveland's to more easily serve alcohol.



Before the 2012 measure, stores could sell beer and wine, but liquor stores were not allowed. Restaurants could apply for a permit to sell mixed drinks, but the ratio of food-to-alcohol sales could not exceed 51-to-49. The permits, which could cost as much as $6,602 annually, also priced many small business owners out.



"The Ellises are going to set the bar several rungs higher than it's ever been set in [downtown] Buda," Renfro said. "That does nothing but raise everyone else's games."



Economic development



In July, Buda City Council approved an economic development incentive agreement in connection with the Buda Mill and Grain project. The deal could amount to as much as $76,000 over 10 years in property and sales tax rebates from the Buda Economic Development Corp. and the city of Buda.



Terms of the agreement stipulate the development must create at least 10 full-time jobs. According to a Buda EDC news release, depending on what tenants lease the spaces, as many as 80 full-time jobs could be created as a result of the Buda Mill & Grain development.



The uniqueness of the project makes it a worthwhile endeavor for the city as it is expected to bring in tourism and keep locals from having to go to neighboring communities such as San Marcos or Austin for entertainment, Mayor Todd Ruge said.



"I think this is a very small investment [that is] going to add to our coffers," Ruge said. "On top of that, it's going to bring jobs to Buda. I believe any job we can add to the city is a big positive."



In June 2013 the Buda EDC granted the Buda Mill & Grain Co. a $168,000 incentive to replace a water line. Buda EDC Executive Director Ann Miller said this was done because the line dead-ends near the Buda Mill & Grain property, which caused the need to flush water out so that it would not stagnate. The new water line would serve the entire downtown system and benefit each property in the historic district, Miller said.



Miller said it takes the right people to create a development as unique as the one the Ellises are building.



If the project is successful, it will become an example Miller said she envisions others trying to replicate.



"I will say it's much cheaper and easier just to tear down the building and build something new," she said. "You have to have the right property owners who realize the unique character and want to deal with all the struggles of renovating and bringing buildings that were built 100 years ago up to code."



Parking



Preserving the character of the mill and the property's natural landscape proved difficult when designing parking, Dodi said. Rather than tearing structures or trees down, the family worked around certain features to configure a parking setup that would be up to Texas Department of Transportation and city of Buda standards.



In July, TxDOT approved a driveway permit for the development. That laid the path for the family to apply for a parking permit with the city. The application was in the process of being reviewed as of late July.



Once approved, Saenger said constructing the parking lot "will take every bit of four months."



In the first phase of the project, 46 parking spaces will be created on about 5 acres. The rest of the property will contain 65 additional parking spaces as well as new retail buildings for which designs have not been completed.



If not for the fearlessness of Dodi's mother, Gay Dahlstrom, the old mill would have been sold off before the redevelopment effort began, Dodi said. Dahlstrom's brother wanted to sell the property when she inherited it in the 1990s, Dodi said.



But instead plans were carved out to revitalize the site and turn it into a mixed-use development. Dodi said some involved in the plans at the time talked about calling on an outside developer, but Dahlstrom only trusted family to bring the old mill back to life.



Saenger joined the company in 2010, and six months later, his mother joined him.



"Everyone comes and says, 'This is a really hard site you're working with,'" Saenger said. "But it's great. We keep rolling through every building and we get better, and it's exciting."

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