As available building inventory in downtown Conroe dwindles, local merchants and stakeholders are focusing on live entertainment and events to help increase business in the area.
Additional projects include transportation improvements along Hwy. 105 and construction of sidewalks along roadways leading to the downtown area. In March, City Council also approved a $325,000 grant to help fund Crighton Theatre improvements.
“The city has put a lot of effort into revitalizing downtown [over the years]so that we could bring retail back,” City Administrator Paul Virgadamo said. “At one time there were buildings boarded up here until we started turning things around. … [Today] there is not a lot of places left to rent downtown.”
Twenty years ago Conroe was a small town with prohibitive liquor laws and a downtown area that featured only a handful of attractions that remained open past 5 p.m. The city has invested more than $15 million in that time in downtown revitalization efforts, such as sidewalk and walkability improvements, additional lighting and facade enhancement projects, Virgadamo said.
Longtime building and business owner Rodney Pool said the downtown Conroe area has come a long way in the past 20 years.
“It was just a little sleepy town that closed up pretty much at 5 o’clock,” Pool said. “There [weren’t] any restaurants down here that stayed open. As we began to develop things, people started coming in and became interested in what was going on.”
Since the area has steadily developed over time, the inventory of available buildings is now running low, Pool said. He believes the city needs to consider expanding the vision for the downtown area beyond the nine square blocks it already encompasses.
“That strip coming in on Hwy. 105 from Cleveland is pretty bad looking,” Pool said. “We see it all the time so we get accustomed to it, but you take a visitor coming in for the first time and that is their first exposure to Conroe. It is not a very good impression.”
Downtown stakeholders are now shifting their attention to hosting live events in the area to drum up business.
“Back in the day downtowns were great for shopping and getting your hair cut, but today the emphasis on downtowns has slightly changed,” said Harold Hutcheson, Manager of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. “People want to come down to be entertained, to eat and that is an important thing.”
To that end, the Conroe Downtown Area Association launched Isaac Conroe Farmers Market and Bluegrass Jam at Conroe Founder’s Plaza on June 4. The event is held every first Thursday of the month until Oct. 1 in conjunction with the First Thursday Free Concert Series hosted by the Conroe Parks and Recreation Department. The market will consider moving to Saturdays once the series comes to a close.
The association will also host its first “Shakespeare in the Park” event at Conroe Founders Plaza for the first time in April, Hutcheson said.
Pool said the efforts will complement downtown attractions such as the Crighton and Owen theatres to attract visitors from outside Montgomery County.
“For every 50 miles a person drives, you have to provide four hours of entertainment,” Pool said. “So if we are going to look to get the Houston people here, we have to be able to provide at least four hours [of entertainment]. That is what we are after.”
City of Conroe officials are working to improve transportation and walkability in the downtown area. Virgadamo said a majority of the $15 million investment in the last 20 years has been used for pavement improvements, sidewalk construction, and lighting and utility infrastructure to benefit pedestrians.
A planned improvement project along Hwy. 105 will replace the open turn lanes to the east of I-45 with a raised median that includes dedicated turn lanes to improve safety along the roadway, said Thomas Woolley, Conroe assistant director of projects and transportation.
Five-foot-wide sidewalks will be installed along with the project to enhance pedestrian mobility along the corridor. The project is expected to go out for bid in August 2016. Construction is expected to take 10 to 15 months to complete.
“We consider Hwy. 105 between I-45 and Frazier Street our gateway into downtown,” Virgadamo said. “We are undergoing gateway improvements that lead everybody into downtown and to enhance the downtown area.”
In January the city launched its Conroe Connection transit system, which provides transportation for residents who need access to key service sectors like the downtown area and the Conroe Regional Medical Center. In conjunction with the effort, the city installed sidewalks along the route to ensure safe pedestrian access to bus stops.
The city’s transit department is also leading efforts to build new sidewalks that radiate from the downtown area nucleus this year, Woolley said. The projects cost about $655,000 in all, and include new sidewalks along Gladstell, Booker T. Washington, Sgt. Ed Holcomb and Frazier streets.