Business, property owners get first look at City’s vision for downtown
By SHELLY WILKISON
A standing-room-only crowd of property owners, business owners and residents filled the City Council Chamber last Thursday to hear a City presentation on revitalizing downtown Liberty Hill — a planning project eight months in the making.
“The City Council is moving in a positive direction to spur growth and encourage new business,” said Planning Director Jim Bechtol.
Bechtol created a Power Point slide presentation incorporating his vision for the area that includes facelifts for buildings, sidewalks and landscaping, relief for traffic congestion, a pocket park and gateway to downtown.
“We’re trying to get some buy-in and encourage you to dream with us,” Bechtol said.
The City urged business and property owners downtown to create a downtown business alliance or an association that would give them “a stronger, united voice” when it comes to making decisions about the future of the area.
As a property owner downtown, the City Council and staff say they are committed to making improvements there that will make it a vibrant business district.
Bechtol said the City will spend $1 million in grant funds to construct sidewalks in the downtown area in the next few years. Phase 1 in 2015 at a cost of $321,000 will fund sidewalks along Loop 332 from RR 1869 to Liberty Hill Elementary School.
Phase 2, which is scheduled for 2016 at a cost of $307,000, will provide sidewalks from Hickman Street to the fire station on Loop 332. Phase 3, at a cost of $312,000 will be completed in 2017 on Loop 332 from the elementary school to Hillcrest Lane and in the neighborhood across the street from the old football stadium.
Increasing the availability of parking has long been on the wish list of downtown businesses, and continues to be a primary concern to those interested in opening a business downtown.
The City has purchased the two-story Holloway building on Loop 332, that will include more than 20 parking spaces.
In his presentation, Bechtol showed building owners additional opportunities to add parking. He said with new sidewalks and landscaping, parallel parking along Loop 332 will be limited.
Bechtol said traffic downtown is growing more congested before and after school. He suggested a slight bypass to the intersection at Loop 332 and RR 1869 that would veer pass-through vehicles away from the four-way Stop.
He said the bypass would open an opportunity to create a plaza at the corner now owned by AT&T, which could be used for special events.
Another way to “calm traffic” was to create a gateway to downtown at the intersection of Loop 332 and CR 275 (Bagdad Road).
Bechtol showed a conceptual rendering of a round-about at that intersection that included sidewalks and landscaping surrounding the sculpture “The Guardian”, which is now located on the campus of Liberty Hill Intermediate School. The massive rock sculpture was created as part of the Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium in 1976.
“We want density in our downtown area. That will help businesses survive,” he said.
Bechtol referred to six active residential developments within one mile of downtown. He said 316 new units, which could translate to as many as 1,000 new residents, will open within the next two years.
“We want a walkable downtown,” he said.
David Parker, owner of Parker’s Corner Market downtown, expressed his opposition to an idea that the Economic Development Corp. should provide financial incentives to businesses looking to open or relocate to Liberty Hill.
“There’s no reason to dole out money for that,” Parker said.
Although the EDC has received applications from some businesses, Bechtol said, “that’s not going to happen.”
The City fielded another question and some comments from an audience member that didn’t identify himself who disagreed with the notion of spending money revamping downtown when the business activity and traffic was passing through Liberty Hill on State Highway 29.
“There is a lifestyle you have here (in Liberty Hill) and I’m perfectly fine with going out of town for everything (to make purchases),” he said.
Bechtol responded that the Council wasn’t okay with sending business out of Liberty Hill.
“We want employers here creating jobs, and people spending their money here,” he said.
In response to another question as to whether the City had the infrastructure in place to support downtown business growth, Bechtol answered affirmatively.
Construction begins soon on a water line that will bring water to Liberty Hill from Leander via Bagdad Road.
“We all should take a role to clean up dilapidated buildings, junk cars and tall grass,” Bechtol said.
One resident asked what the City was doing to enforce ordinances relating to those issues.
City Manager Greg Boatright said public safety and health ordinances are in place, but a code enforcement officer will need to be hired to do that job. The current budget does include funding for the position.
“Yes, we will be getting active on that,” Boatright said. “But we don’t want to be enemies of property owners.”
“You talk a lot about restaurants downtown, but I wouldn’t go downtown to a nice restaurant the way it looks now,” the resident said.
Boatright said the EDC has funds to invest in the downtown area. The Board is developing an application process for facade grants for businesses looking to improve the appearance of their buildings.
“We’re vested in the downtown,” said Boatright. “We want to help y’all create that atmosphere. We’re not trying to force you into something. We don’t have all the answers. We want your feedback. We put some thought into this, and now we want to hear your thoughts.”
The City provided forms at the meeting and asked the audience to complete and return them. Signers were asked to identify the three top priorities to improving downtown, as well as ideas for how the City should create new business opportunities. The survey also asked if the City shoud proactively enforce code compliance.
On Tuesday, Bechtol told The Independent he had received only a few completed surveys.
In addition to advertising the event in the newspaper, the City sent personal invitations to property owners, business owners and residents along Loop 332 — about 70 people.
Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan, who has taken an active interest in improving downtown, recalled the days when the Loop was a “vibrant” place. A cafe and movie theater were among the most popular businesses downtown.
“I was also here when downtown was vibrant,” added Mayor Connie Fuller. “There was a wonderful sense of community, and we want to create that again.”