City, EDC working to make Liberty Hill a destination
By SHELLY WILKISON
Through its Economic Development Corp., the City of Liberty Hill is sending a message that the once-rural community now on the verge of a population explosion is finally open for business.
As the promise of more rooftops in the school district changes the landscape, city leaders are anxious for commercial development to follow within the city limits with the goal of making the small town on the Shin Oak Ridge a destination.
“There is a lot that needs to be done, but we finally have a city council and an EDC Board with an increased commitment to making it happen,” said City Manager Greg Boatright. “We’ve gone past the ‘good idea’ stage.”
This spring, Boatright weathered a two-year political storm stirred by the former mayor and one council member who were both defeated in the May election. These days, instead of feeling tossed about amidst the political power plays, Boatright has his sites set on making Liberty Hill more than just a fuel stop on State Highway 29.
Boatright said the key to that is the EDC, which has about $700,000 in reserves and a mission to promote business development and economic growth.
“We don’t need to just sit on that (money),” Boatright said. “The EDC was created to reinvest and create business opportunities here.”
Boatright, who also serves as director of the EDC, said multiple projects are in the works and the EDC is looking for more.
Revitalizing downtown Liberty Hill is at the top of the list. Perhaps prompted by the announcement this summer that the City would receive a grant from Williamson County to construct sidewalks, Mayor Connie Fuller and Councilmember Elizabeth Branigan have been seeking input on possible improvements to “old town.”
“This sidewalk grant could create a new feeling for downtown,” said Boatright. “But what we need is an anchor business downtown to be a draw — something to give people a reason to come down here.”
Boatright said the EDC is discussing the creation of a facade grant that would provide funds for improving the old buildings. Those eligible would be existing downtown businesses and those looking to locate there.
“This would help improve the appearance of downtown,” he said. “The EDC could even help with relocation costs or we have even discussed buying a building and leasing it out.”
Boatright said present-day downtown lacks parking and simply isn’t presentable.
“We need to clean up behind those buildings and get business owners and employees to park behind their buildings leaving space for customers,” he said.
Boatright said he would also like to open negotiations with Fellowship Church and the VFW for possible purchase of the VFW parking lot or possibly the building itself. Boatright said the location would be ideal for food trucks and special events.
“There are all kinds of possibilities, but the main thing is to create an atmosphere and the sidewalk grants have started us down that road,” he said.
Boatright said the downtown committee with input from the Parks and Recreation Board is also considering the possibility of the City purchasing infield lots in old town for “pocket parks.”
The first could be constructed on a lot the City is considering for purchase on RR 1869. Boatright described a pocket park as a light use park with a playground, picnic area and some parking, which could also be used for visitors to downtown businesses.
“We want to create a destination for families,” he said. He said that since work is complete on City Park improvements funded by county grants, it may be time to explore new grants that could be used to purchase property for pocket parks. He said the fiscal 2014 budget will include some funds for development of pocket parks.
“It’s about the quality of life,” he said. “If we want people to buy the infield lots, we (the EDC) can make it conducive to do that. All of this is part of an overall plan to create atmosphere.”
He said the EDC might also consider waiving fees for businesses looking to build new buildings on vacant lots.
Boatright said he has also been approached by the Liberty Hill Development Board about involving the City in a plan to relocate the International Sculpture Park from the grounds of Liberty Hill Intermediate School to Lions Foundation Park. Boatright spoke to the Board in recent weeks about the possibilities.
He said one idea he would present to the Development Board, which owns and oversees Foundation Park, is moving some of the sculptures to various locations downtown and even along SH 29 and then geocaching them as “hidden treasures.”
Geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunting game that uses GPS-enabled devices. Participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and then attempt to find the item hidden at that location — sort of a technology- driven scavenger hunt.
Boatright said it would be a way to bring tourists to Liberty Hill while reviving public interest in the sculpture park.
A key element in the overall development of old town is the need for code enforcement. Boatright said the proposed budget will include funds for a code enforcement officer whose main function will be to see that properties within the city boundaries are kept presentable.
“You can’t stack up cars in the front yard. There will be consequences for that,” he said. “It brings down the viability of a community when people are allowed to discard things in the yard and not clean it up.”
Boatright said the EDC is also exploring the possibility of hooking up every residential customer to the city’s sewer system.
Of the current 560 water meters, only 180 are wastewater customers, although the City installed grinder pumps at every location years ago. Since the equipment was installed, customers have never been required to connect, yet property tax revenue was used to fund the project.
“With 400 more customers at $42 a month, that would mean $400,000-$500,000 in revenue,” he said, adding that when the system began paying for itself, property tax revenue would be free for other city services.
The City is communicating with a number of developers of residential subdivisions as well as a few commercial interests.
Boatright said one business owner is discussing with the City the possibility of extending Bluebonnet Lane to SH 29 with the goal of creating an Enterprize Zone. With EDC involvement, water and wastewater lines could be extended to the area in addition to road improvements.
Boatright said the City and the EDC receive inquiries weekly from companies looking to do business in Liberty Hill. He said some announcements will be forthcoming. “I am enjoying this — helping our city grow,” Boatright said.
“The ultimate goal is to have a sustainable city. By generating revenue, we can plan and improve infrastructure, have better streets and parks. We have a new attitude at City Hall where we are not turning away those who come through the door with ideas.”