Downtown becoming new face of Liberty Hill
By SHELLY WILKISON
The chimes on the clock tower sound on the hour and the half-hour as if ringing in a new day in downtown Liberty Hill.
Greg Boatright, Liberty Hill’s city administrator since May 2013, said the new City Administration Building stands as a testament to a community looking to control its identity and its destiny in the midst of unprecedented growth.
The chimes, he says, help create an almost nostalgic atmosphere in a downtown district that in 2016 began seeing new signs of life thanks to a significant investment from the City of Liberty Hill.
Boatright says it’s just the beginning.
“Over the long term, we will probably make — with buildings and property acquisitions, drainage improvements over the next five years, and if we build a new police department — a $7-$10 million investment in downtown,” he said. “We will make a substantial investment in downtown, and the City Council is on board with that. They see the downtown being the centerpiece for our city.”
The improvements to the downtown area started last year when the Economic Development Corp. began awarding grants for facade and sign improvements to downtown businesses. The EDC is funded by revenue generated from a portion of the sales tax. Seeking to improve the appearance of some of the old, weathered structures and bring a fresh look to the street, the City agreed to share some of the costs with property owners.
Then, a Community Development Block Grant from Williamson County helped pay for sidewalk construction along residential streets and along Loop 332 near Liberty Hill Elementary School.
And in recent weeks, the sidewalks and accompanying handrails in front of businesses on the east side of Loop 332 have been completed, with finishing touches expected in the coming days. Sidewalks on the opposite side of the street will be constructed mid-year, he said.
Decorative railing at the intersection of Loop 332 and RR 1869 add to the Texas iron and stars theme.
Customers doing business downtown have noticed the parallel parking spaces that have been marked along both sides of the street — the first step in creating more designated parking downtown.
Hoping to draw the community’s attention to the changes, the City also invested in Christmas lights and holiday displays to light up Veterans Memorial Park and the new Nathan Wetzel Park on Loop 332 and CR 279.
“Downtown is what I refer to as the heartbeat of our community,” Boatright said. “People are interested in areas that are unique, and it’s unique for us to have these old buildings that are still there. We want to try to enhance that and control the destiny of downtown.”
Boatright said the collective efforts to enhance the character of the area also sends a message to the community and businesses looking to locate in Liberty Hill.
“We want to show we are committed and want the downtown to develop,” he said. “We want to have our community be able to identify with the downtown area.”
Boatright said city government’s investment there isn’t unusual for municipalities.
“What marked cities in the past were the government buildings” that served as landmarks creating an identity for the town, he said.
Mayor Connie Fuller and an appointed blue ribbon committee has been working this year on plans to redesign Veterans Park. On Wednesday, the committee walked through the small park on Loop 332 hoping to come up with a final wish list of what they would like to see included in the final design. While preliminary drawings have been prepared, Boatright said all of the amenities will not be constructed at the same time as the City seeks to raise funds from the community for some of the improvements.
Boatright said improvements to green spaces downtown like Veterans Memorial Park make the area more attractive to residents and businesses.
“Pocket parks help create the atmosphere and feeling of community. It’s an area you can go to, have lunch, take the kids, and having the presence of the City in the downtown helps to make it secure,” he said.
Boatright said a five-year plan for downtown would include a new police department building. His first choice of a location would be at the corner of Loop 332 and RR 1869 on the vacant portion of a lot now owned by AT&T.
He said city staff have “several feelers out for property to purchase in the downtown area.”
In fact, the City Council voted Monday to allow Boatright to begin negotiations for the purchase of the Fowler Building at 332 Myrtle Lane.
The building, which was identified as one of the “projects” the City would undertake this fiscal year through the issuance of Tax Notes, may become home to the EDC and the Liberty Hill Chamber of Commerce, Boatright said. On the second floor, he envisions a small museum that could display art related to the 1976 Liberty Hill International Sculpture Symposium, which sculptor Mel Fowler organized from his studio there. The building has a historical marker.
“We would like to get this purchased and work with the EDC to see if we could cost share in the restoration of that building,” Boatright said. “The building has a historical designation and we don’t want to see anything happen to it, as far as it changing what it represents to the downtown. It’s a cool part of our history.”
The published project list set aside $200,000 for the purchase of the Fowler Building. An executive session discussion Monday produced a unanimous Council vote, but a price range was not revealed.
Creating additional parking in the business district beyond the parallel street parking marked this month is a priority to commercial development there.
Boatright said the City’s plan to make drainage improvements on Myrtle Lane in front of the Fellowship Annex will allow for the creation of parking spaces along the street. Construction on the drainage improvements, including the placement of a larger water line there, is tentatively scheduled for January.
Boatright added that purchasing a portion of the AT&T property along with the adjacent property owned by Williamson County could create more parking opportunities on the combined 3.5 acres.
“One thing that has become very evident is that the City needs to control its own destiny in the downtown area,” he said.
Boatright explained that it may be in the City’s long-term best interest to purchase some properties and repurpose them in order to improve drainage and streets.
“If we need to buy a lot or a house in order to get what we need to improve the drainage situation, or if that structure has to be removed, then we get what the City needs from that land, then put it back on the market and incentivize that for a builder,” he said.
City staff and the Mayor’s downtown committee are also thinking about the alley that runs behind Loop 332 on the west side.
“I’ve seen some neat things in different cities. Some made them a walking marketplace. Artisans have helped design and create these alleys that have different venues as far as artistry, food trailers,” he said.
Boatright said in addition to downtown improvements and parks, transportation is high on the priority list for 2017.
“Transportation improvements is something Liberty Hill hasn’t had the ability to invest in because of resources,” he said. “But now we have the resources available because of our revenue.”
e said improving the safety of intersections like RR 1869 and SH 29 is at the top of the list. He said it’s possible that the City would design and engineer the improvements so that Texas Department of Transportation would be ready to do the work when state funding becomes available.
“TxDOT would fund the actual construction, but we would have the dollars available to get the design done,” he said, adding that right of way acquisition and movement of utilities and traffic signals require the most significant investment.
“The Loop (332) is an important piece of the puzzle that is overlooked,” he said.
Currently owned and maintained by the state, the street is a main thoroughfare in the community and Boatright said it may soon be time to revisit the question of whether the City should take over the roadway.
In the past, the question of city ownership of Loop 332 has been the source of heated disagreement in the community.
“At the end of the day, the City does need to own the Loop,” Boatright said. “It’s been so controversial in the past, but for us to be able to have access that maybe doesn’t coincide now with what TxDOT requires, would be valuable (to future development). I think it will happen, but I don’t know when.”
Although a few miles from downtown, another major amenity the City is considering, which will be funded by tax notes, is a swimming pool at City Park on CR 200. Monday was the deadline for companies to submit proposals for the project, which also includes construction of a walking trail around the park. Boatright said he expects a firm to be selected and construction to begin by March 1. The pool will be located on the pad site next to the basketball court.
“Whatever we do as a City, we want it to be of benefit specifically for the people of the Liberty Hill area,” he said. “The Council is big on focusing on what can we do that impacts our city right now.”
Over the next several months, the City of Liberty Hill could grow by an additional 250 homes as plans continue toward the annexation of the Stonewall Ranch subdivision. The City is currently communicating with developer RSI to bring in the municipal utility district. Owners of a $250,000 home there could save as much as $1,000 per year on fees they now pay to the MUD by paying city property taxes instead, while also having access to local law enforcement.
“We have to create an atmosphere where RSI is comfortable with the deal we’re putting on the table,” Boatright said, explaining the process to reach an agreement. “For them, it’s the ability to be reimbursed for the infrastructure they built in Stonewall from the City versus the MUD Board. The MUD Board is the key to collapsing the MUD and bringing the whole area into our city. If the MUD Board and RSI agree, the process is much simpler (voluntary annexation) and can happen on a shorter time frame.”
Boatright said Stonewall Ranch MUD has issued about $4.5 million debt to date, which is something the City can overcome by taking in the exiting 250 homes and an additional 800 undeveloped lots.
With all of the activity in Liberty Hill, the City is gaining influence among decision makers and politicians at the county and state level, Boatright said.
“One thing that will help our city is to have regional influence by having relationships with our legislators and the people associated with TxDOT, CTRMA (Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority),” he said. “By having the ability to visit with these people and for them to recognize that Liberty Hill is engaged and serious about the direction it’s going. They recognize us as an established city that is professional in the way it conducts itself.
“That makes a lot of difference when we go asking for things and trying to direct what we want for our city. Having a council that is united and having the resources to influence the direction, putting money into projects and not just asking for a handout — makes a huge difference in what we’re able to accomplish for our city.”
As furniture arrives this week, and City staff begin moving into the new building, Boatright reflected on how far local government has come in a very short time.
“The battles I was fighting for the first year and a half were just about wanting to get to where we could plan a budget where we had enough money to maintain what we had — a minimal police department, the buildings we had and being able to address the water situation,” he said. “That (lack of water) was the main thing holding us back.”
He also credited the 2012 city council for having the foresight to take over the wastewater treatment plant from the Lower Colorado River Authority.
“That has been a real asset for Liberty Hill by having the regional wastewater plant as part of our community, and has thus far been the thing that has helped us arrive where we’re at in a short three years. It has helped us with revenue and opened lots of new developments in the area,” he said.
Boatright said the challenge ahead for city government is to be competitive in the region and that means being able to attract and retain the most qualified, professional staff members who are educated and experienced in their fields. Being able to pay competitive salaries is the key.
“This is a specialized area when it comes to hiring people to work in the public sector. I want to put people there who know what they’re doing. If I’m having to direct a person on a daily basis as to what they should do every day, then I’m spinning my wheels,” he said.
“Three years ago we didn’t have any staff. We were probably $5,000 under the nearest competitor on police salaries for first-year officers. We have to step up to get the best possible people,” he said.
Boatright said as things are changing at a fast clip, some tasks have been placed on the back burner. One of those is enforcement of the existing sign ordinance.
“The sign ordinance was one of those things where people couldn’t agree,” he said, especially on language that dealt with off-premise signs. Thus, today, off-premise signage has noticeably increased along SH 29. Off-premise signs are those that promote a business that does not exist at the location where the sign is placed.
“Some ordinances didn’t get filed, and the sign situation is something we’re aware of,” Boatright said, adding that the current code enforcement employee “is familiarizing herself with the sign ordinance” and is working with the Senior Planner to establish what was adopted versus what is enforced.
“It (the sign ordinance) is not being enforced now, and many businesses are out of compliance now,” he said.
Visitors to downtown this week are watching as a new facade is added to what will be the police department and municipal court when administrative offices move to the new building by Monday.
Construction will begin in January on the present court building on RR 1869. The City will add about 800 square feet onto the building and remodel the city council chamber. From January through May, all city public meetings will be held at the Fellowship Annex.