Firm offers look at downtown revitalization proposal

LeAnda Staebner
Stephenville Empire-Tribune
This rendering provided by Gateway Planning shows what the downtown square could potentially look like after the removal of medians and expansion of green areas around the courthouse.
This rendering of the downtown square shows the potential for events such as car shows and public markets to be held in the area.

Business owners, civic leaders and a host of interested residents got a glimpse of what a revitalized downtown Stephenville could look like during a presentation on Wednesday hosted by the city.

Scott Polikov with Gateway Planning, a planning and economic development firm, and Mitch Wright, a site planner and landscape architect, have been working with the city's MainStreet program, the city council and other civic leaders on a downtown revitalization plan to boost economic development for the city.

The city council plans to use recommendations to form a bond proposal to take to the voters for approval at a later date.

"Our responsibility is to create a design infrastructure and a business plan so that your downtown takes advantage of what's just bubbling under the surface," Polikov said.

Among the firm's initial recommendations are:

• Public spaces connecting downtown

• More green space

• Managed parking

• Harmonious walkability and mobility

Among the existing features Polikov touted are the county courthouse, designed by famed architect J. Riely Gordon and built from local limestone; the fact that there are no empty store fronts along the city square; and the use of historic Thurber brick in the downtown area.

"Our love is historic downtowns," Polikov said. "If done right, embracing history, building on it, and creating an opportunity to bring the modern economy into that environment can be some of the best economic development or quality of life."

He noted one of the firm's recommendations is to expand the use of the city park and bosque areas to possibly create a "Downtown on the Park" or "Downtown on the Crescent," using an area of Boston as an example, referencing a project that connected various areas of that city into a "very walkable urban area."

Unlike the traditional connotation of "urban," Polikov said he defines it as "places where you have the chance meeting on a daily basis to meet people that you don't know."

With four connected blocks surrounding the historic courthouse, he said the area could be shaped to create an anchor and catalyze additional development on the square.

The initial part of the proposal would take a portion of the current parking area around the courthouse to create green areas linked by Belknap and College, removing medians to create linear street plazas.

Polikov said the plazas could be blocked off on occasions of special events such as car shows, outdoor markets, concerts, etc.

In addition, existing buildings that house other businesses and entities could be partially converted to include a variety of restaurants and event venues in the downtown area. Polikov noted that every project proposal done by his firm includes living spaces in the area, providing a close-by clientele to patronize the restaurants and other businesses within the revitalization zone.

Concerns raised

The team noted that a couple of concerns that have been raised through the course of discussion are parking and the city's historic brick.

The Stephenville Economic Development Authority has identified public and private parking within two to three blocks of the downtown square that officials say is being underutilized. To maximize the use of existing parking, the firm recommends a parking management system that would be dependent on time of day, day of the week, scheduled events, etc.

"We're not going to propose anything where there is a reduction of total parking within this area," Polikov said. "There'll be no net loss of parking."

Wright noted that the concern of the historic brick is something the team has taken into consideration from the start.

"That's something from the very beginning .... that was going to be a priority for us to do as much preservation and restoration of historic brick as possible," Wright said. "Cause that is part of the story of Stephenville. Those are the kinds of things we look for ... it's not just the buildings, but it's also the brick and some of the activities here. It's important."

Community uniqueness

When asked how Stephenville can capitalize on the uniqueness of the community and being the Cowboy Capital to become a destination for visitors, Polikov offered several observations.

He said building on the rich history of the city, including embracing and restoring the historic brick, is one key to making that happen.

"We think that this is an opportunity to bring — even more so — the rural culture of Erath County through the design and the function and encourage more functions down here, to embrace the culture of the county as a whole," Polikov said.

He also stressed the benefits of having Tarleton State University and its move to a Division I school, adding the community offers something for all ages from children to young adults attending the university, young families, professionals being recruited for local business opportunities and even aging-in-place for the elderly with medical and retirement facilities readily available. 

"You have one of the highest quality of life potential environments of any core of a livable county that I know of in the state," Polikov said.

Community input

The team noted that the plans presented Wednesday are in early stages and input from the community as well as property owners and tenants along the square, is welcome.

Polikov also noted that while a portion of the project can be funded with tax dollars through a bond election, individual property and business owners, as well as nonprofits housed along the square, will potentially bolster the look and features as property values and economic development increase in the area.

"This is a vision. We are not suggesting that this has to happen this way," Polikov stressed. "But it's our best guess at what makes sense from talking to a lot folks. We want your input."

For more on the presentation, visit the city's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/cityofsville