In March 2017, the city of Conroe spent $95,000 commissioning Hawes Hill Calderon, LLP to create a revitalization plan for downtown. Project Manager Tony Allender presented the more than 100-page draft plan Oct. 8, which includes issues the city should address—as well as 41 recommendations for potential projects that could expand and enhance downtown.
“It’s not only going to make it a tourist attraction for other people—more importantly, if I lived in the area, I’m going to be coming back here more often, and I’m going to be a more consistent visitor to downtown,” Allender said. “The most effective way to grow your downtown is to hit the audiences that are already familiar with you and making it attractive to them—[then] it’s automatically more attractive to everybody else.”
This is not the first time the city has paid for a downtown plan: in 1999, city officials hired consulting firm Hyett Palma to recommend livability and workability improvements. With those recommendations completed the city is now looking ahead, Conroe City Administrator Paul Virgadamo said.
“We had a road map from the other [plan] and we finished it, so we needed a new road map for downtown,” Virgadamo said. “A comprehensive plan takes a long time to do: you lay out things for 15-20 years from now, and you work to get to that point—we just have to set aside money and start working.”
Past, future of downtown
The plan expands downtown from a nine-block area to more than 30 square blocks. It proposes creating five interconnected districts for expanded, yet distinct, downtown areas.
The proposed districts include an arts and honors district highlighting performance arts, an old town marketplace district with open space for outdoor markets, a central business district, a neartown district catering to national retailers and a homestead district with neighborhood improvements.
According to the plan, the new planned downtown will extend east to west from 10th Street to I-45, and north to south from Dallas Street to Avenue G.
Larry Foerster, chairman of the Montgomery County Historical Commission, said the study focuses on downtown areas east of the Union Pacific Railroad line due to its historical significance.
“We want to preserve the old historical residential areas as well as historical commercial and retail areas on both sides of the railroad track,” Foerster said. “There’s some interest from developers in trying to preserve those structures as best they can for the purpose of developing those areas.”
Downtown Conroe’s challenges
The report outlines challenges and issues downtown faces, such as pedestrian connectivity, parking and the isolating effect of railroads. Allender said improvements here would make downtown more of a destination.
Rodney Poole, president of the Conroe Downtown Area Association and owner of the Conroe Corner Pub, said there is a lack of space for retail and restaurants.
“If you look at the nine square blocks [of downtown Conroe], there’s very little space available,” Poole said. “As new businesses want to come in … there’s really no place to put them, so that’s really driving this need to expand [downtown].”
According to the study, there are 110 law-related firms downtown consuming first-floor space often reserved for retail in places that want to activate streetscapes, affecting the number of businesses that generate sales tax.
“Law firms don’t fit into that realm of attracting people to downtown for dining, entertainment or shopping experiences,” Allender said.
He said new developments can create standards for first-floor space renters, leaving it for retailers, restaurants and businesses. He also suggested the city could build on its reputation as a music-friendly city by adding a larger performing arts venue and encouraging musicians to live and work downtown.
Best known for two performance venues, the Crighton and Owen theaters, city officials have started to discuss construction of a large performing arts venue to accommodate growing demand for live entertainment.
The Owen Theatre seats 250, and the Crighton Theatre seats 525 currently, and the planned Yellow Rose Theatre along Hwy. 105 could also help fulfill this need. According to a previous Community Impact Newspaper article, it could seat up to 2,000 visitors and is expected to break ground in 2019.
Incentivizing next steps
With the 111-page study in hand, the city intends to begin prioritizing projects in January, Virgadamo said.
He said he foresees some projects taking place sooner rather than later—specifically sidewalks and more street lighting for the neighborhoods east of the Union Pacific line and making crossing the tracks more pedestrian-friendly.
“There are some other areas that we’ve got to lay [aside] funds over the next few years to try and tackle,” he said. “Right now, we want to look at [whether] there is a way we can get people walking from one area to another.”
Virgadamo said the city can tackle smaller projects such as wayfinding and signage more easily than the larger projects, such as developing urban living space, creating an open-air marketplace, and starting business and dining incubators. Virgadamo said he could see the city making 380 Agreements, or development initiatives that share sales tax revenue, along with other incentives to prompt new and existing businesses to upgrade their aesthetics.
As for funding, he said the city will look into applying for grants, potentially hiring a downtown manager and allocating funds from city departments.
Although the total cost of projects is unknown, the study estimates a hike and bike loop could cost $6 million, enhanced flood plains could cost $5.2 million and improved rail crossings could cost up to $500,000.
Danielle Scheiner, director of the Conroe Economic Development Council, said the CEDC could potentially fund infrastructure or parks—such as transforming areas into green space.
While the CEDC cannot provide business incentives or tax abatements to retail-based businesses, the CEDC can offer incentives to companies that promote job growth, Scheiner said.
“[The CEDC would] probably be more involved if it were to redevelop an office building and bring in a professional or technical services company,” Scheiner said. “What we could use our funds for would be more structure projects for parks or any infrastructure that will help benefit economic development.”
City Council has not yet sat down to discuss the projects, but Virgadamo said at the earliest, recommendations from the plan will be implemented in late 2019 after the budget is approved.