City may consider downtown PID to make improvements, spur development

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By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill council members and some city staff visited the City of Celina in north Texas in recent weeks and returned with ideas about how to make improvements to the downtown area.

While the City of Liberty Hill through its Economic Development Corp. has awarded several facade matching grants to commercial property owners downtown, City Administrator Greg Boatright said other issues are stopping business development — issues that might be remedied if the City were to create a Public Improvement District there.

On Monday, the City Council held a strategic planning workshop with staff to discuss a number of issues — one of which was the development of downtown.

“There are certain things a city has to get involved in and take ownership of to be successful. In this instance (downtown), parking is always what it comes back to,” Boatright said. “I think the EDC can take an active role in that.”

With two members of the EDC Board of Directors present, Boatright described options for funding improvements to downtown structures, create parking and solve drainage problems.

One of those was the creation of a Public Improvement District (PID), which would allow the City and/or the EDC to purchase property downtown, make improvements to the property then sell or lease it back to the private sector.

“In Celina, they had a downtown PID, and they were able to obtain properties and get them in condition to rent or purchase from the City, which could be a source for paying back the PID (bonds), said Mayor Connie Fuller. “It’s exciting to think we could get funding to do that up front. It’s a real different way of thinking about it, but it’s a way to get there in a shorter period of time.”

Boatright stressed that the City doesn’t have to “debt ourselves to oblivion to accomplish these things. There are tools out there available to us.”

He said it has become more common for the public sector to buy property and become a developer of downtown areas, making them functional, then returning them to the private sector.

“If you’re committed to developing the downtown, this is the thing we see over and over again in communities. You can’t just let it happen, you have to take an active role in it,” Boatright said.

“The preservation of our downtown is somewhat of a public charge,” he said, noting that two buildings contain historical markers.

“The downtown collectively belongs to Liberty Hill residents, and that’s a justification of why it would be appropriate (for the City) to spend money there,” said Assistant City Manager Amber Lewis.

“For us to control our own destiny, we’re going to have to take ownership. It’s time to not say ‘if’, but to decide how we do it and find a vehicle to make it happen,” Boatright said.

Drainage problems continue to be a problem within the city limits. Boatright suggested the City consider purchasing property in problem areas, “taking what we need for drainage, then re-purposing the lot, which might mean removing the structure and putting the lot back on the market for a home.

Boatright said he and Mayor Fuller agreed that the place to start was to activate the downtown committee and begin discussions to prioritize projects and research funding vehicles. He said the presence of the EDC and the Chamber is needed at the table, as well as individuals “who bring something to the table to help us develop and make our downtown a destination.”

Councilmember Ron Rhea said he was impressed to see the City of Celina working in partnership with the Chamber of Commerce there and the EDC to make that community better based on a common vision. Boatright admitted that the idea of government getting involved in private business may not be well received by some.

“The City has to be the primary land developer downtown, but that’s not going to be our role forever,” he said. “It (the idea) seems foreign because we are in a conservative area where people tend to believe less government is better.”

He used the Fowler building downtown Liberty Hill as an example of how the city and the EDC could partner to preserve something of historical value to the community.

“Do we let that thing crumble and disappear? That’s where we could buy a structure, remodel it, put it back to its original condition, put the EDC there and allow the Chamber to be there for the time being. Then we find a private sector need, and say ‘we have a building for you.’ We sell it, get our money and go do something else,” Boatright said.

“Do we just keep waiting or get in the driver’s seat and take the initiative?” he said. “What is an EDC for if we don’t use it to that end and partner with them to make the ultimate goal accessible,” Boatright said.

He suggested if the City is to get serious about developing downtown, it needs someone completely focused on downtown.

“And it can’t be someone we already have on staff,” he said. “We can’t arrive at our goal if we’re not committed to putting resources there. That’s the challenge to you as a council.”

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