Public, private entities unite to aid downtown momentum

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From grocery shopping to golfing, antiquing and visiting a water park that operates off a spring-fed river, downtown New Braunfels is a unique place.

“Where else can you have a dinner in a 100-year-old building?” said Nathan Manlove, president of the New Braunfels Downtown Association. “The character here is what’s special. You can build new buildings, but you can’t replace [what’s here]. You will never replicate it or find this anywhere else.”

According to Amy McWhorter, the city’s downtown development coordinator and historic preservation officer, the city budget for fiscal year 2017-18 allocates $74,880 for the downtown operating budget.

“It covers things like special events, general postage, telecom expenses and building rental,” she said, adding that many downtown capital improvement projects receive funding from the city’s New Braunfels Industrial Development Corporation Board, or 4B Board, that leverages a portion of the city’s sales tax revenue for economic development and quality of life projects.

Because city funding for downtown is limited, private investments are becoming more essential.

“A lot of our buildings in our downtown are historically significant in our community, and the best way to preserve them is to rehabilitate them for modern use,” McWhorter said.

Ron Snider is among private investors who have put personal dollars into downtown. He owns Krause’s Biergarten and Cafe, the historic Richter buildings and Seekatz Opera House. He also operates the New Braunfels Farmer’s Market.

“I just really do like downtown,” Snider said. “It’s very similar to an area where I grew up, and it’s been a good opportunity and it’s worked well for us.”

Snider lived in New Braunfels for 20 years before buying Krause’s in 2002. He recalls what downtown was like when he first arrived in New Braunfels.

“It was a beautiful and very busy place,” he said. “All the shops were occupied. It was shortly after that when the H-E-B relocated from downtown and the post office moved, so that was the big tipping point.”

Reinventing Downtown

Carol Johnson, whose parents opened Johnson Furniture Co. in 1966, recalls downtown as a bustling epicenter when she was a child but said she saw commerce slow down in the ’80s with strip centers emerging in other areas of the city.

“There were just a lot of empty storefronts,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of pedestrian traffic.”

Downtown started coming back to life after town leaders worked together to pursue making New Braunfels a designated Texas Main Street city, which happened in 1991. The Texas Main Street Program is a statewide initiative that focuses largely on historical preservation and downtown
revitalization.

Main Street spearheaded the first Wassailfest in downtown New Braunfels in 1992. The event is still held annually on the first Thursday in December and features food, shopping, wassail sampling and
entertainment.

For the past decade especially, Johnson said she has noticed a resurgence of local passion for downtown.

“To watch [downtown]evolve over the last 10 years has been absolutely amazing, but it’s taken a lot of private money to do that,” she said.

Snider said he feels the slump period experienced by downtown New Braunfels turned out to be a positive thing for the city.

“It has caused [downtown]to develop better in a lot of ways,” he said. “It’s a more organic development than big dollars.”

Snider boasts that there are no national chains downtown, but that it thrives on local business.

“It’s great to see it succeeding and having so many new businesses that are doing well downtown,” he said. “I really like that. I think the future is really good for downtown, I really do.”

From an economic standpoint, McWhorter said a healthy downtown is also important for the productivity of land use.

“Downtowns tend to be really good generators on a per-acre basis of jobs and income for the community,” she said, adding that small businesses that operate downtown generate income that is fed back into the local economy rather than giving profits to an out-of-town or out-of-state entity.

An Official Partnership

The city of New Braunfels Downtown Board makes recommendations to City Council for projects, such as beautification, parking and mobility. Last year, the New Braunfels Downtown Board formed an official partnership with the New Braunfels Downtown Association, a nonprofit dedicated to the enhancement of downtown. The collaboration allows the DTA to leverage city funding for joint projects.

To comply with city policies, the DTA changed its fee-based membership model to a more inclusive structure where anyone is welcome, and financial contributors are considered partners. The DTA also holds fundraisers throughout the year.

According to an update from the Downtown Association following its March 6 general meeting, there is currently $24,000 in commitments for partnerships, and the organization continues to get renewals.

The organizations also worked together to define official boundaries for the city’s downtown district.

The downtown public bathrooms that opened in July were also the result of private-public partnership. They received funding from the city’s two Rotary clubs, as well as the city’s 4B Board.

What’s Coming Next

The city’s engineering department is working on new wayfinding signage for automobiles that will be adapted with a similar look for pedestrian wayfinding downtown.

“That’s the idea is to give it a definite sense of place that you are in downtown, particularly in the central core area,” McWhorter said. “We’ve expanded the antique-style light posts, and we have plans to extend them a little further down Academy [Street] and adding banners.”

McWhorter said the city is consistently working on parking improvements and is currently working on adding a parking area on Hill Avenue that will provide an additional 25 parking spaces.

Downtown sidewalk construction is scheduled to wrap this summer, according to David Kneuper, vice president of the New Braunfels Downtown Board.

“That’s what is exciting now is that there are a lot of those projects the board has been working toward that are coming to fruition now,” Kneuper said. “I think with the sidewalks, you’ll start to see businesses come back with sidewalk cafés and patios. I think that will be real fun to see, especially coming into the summer.”

Kneuper said additional sidewalks are designed for Seguin Street but have no funding source.

The city has also been working with Douglas Architects to develop a plan for a 10-acre mixed use development on South Castell Ave., and public input was gathered during a visioning process that concluded Jan. 24.

McWhorter said there are still some pockets of vacant land that could be developed downtown, and she predicts more residential use for the future.

“What I do think we will see happening is we have some vacant upper stories, and I think we’re going to see those come back into use for residential or non-specific commercial use,” she said. “I think residential is critical as a downtown. The idea is you want your downtown functioning 18 to 24 hours per day.”

There are several reasons why local government and community members are coming together to breathe new  life into downtown.

“People are yearning for the quaintness, the intimacy of it all,” Johnson said. “There is an intimacy about a downtown that you can’t experience in a large commercial development.”

For other New Braunfels residents, keeping the unique identity of the town is what feeds their passion.

“This town gets in your blood,” Manlove said. “We’ve got to maintain our culture. We’ve got to showcase our history. I will go to my grave early if New Braunfels is ever known as a suburb of San Antonio.”

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Rachel Nelson
Rachel Nelson is editor of the New Braunfels edition of Community Impact Newspaper. She covers local business, new development, city and county government, health care, education and transportation. Rachel relocated to Central Texas from Amarillo in 2009 and is a graduate of Texas State University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
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