The revitalization of Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Connecting Denton to the greater DFW area with a commuter rail that terminates in Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Overturning city codes that outlawed downtown residences and encouraging a bustling Downtown Denton neighborhood with thousands of residents didn’t happen by accident. Seeing private investors spend millions of dollars to revitalize historic buildings in Downtown Denton that they don’t own didn’t happen by accident. A year ago, Denton didn’t allow breweries in the downtown area – the change didn’t happen by accident. Three years ago, Denton didn’t allow food trucks downtown – the new ordinance didn’t happen by accident. The current trend of high tech jobs converging on Downtown Denton didn’t happen by accident. Creating Downtown Denton into one of the most vibrant, walkable urban centers in Texas didn’t just happen.
All of this came about with vision.
Of all the investments the city has committed in the downtown area over the last two decades, perhaps the cheapest has been the commitment to invest $100,000 a year in local mixed beverage taxes for capital improvement projects aimed at making Downtown Denton more attractive, more walkable, and our historic buildings more preserved.
Considering that in just one month – August of this year – the downtown establishments single handedly contributed over 87% of this annual investment, there are certainly no good fiscal arguments to discontinue this program. Assuming those numbers track throughout the year, that means that the Downtown Reinvestment Grant draws annually from a mere 10% of the mixed beverage taxes contributed solely by downtown businesses.
But on this Tuesday’s agenda is another discussion aimed at “expanding” this program to other areas of the city. Now to be sure, I have for years been an advocate of thinking beyond the square and finding new areas of our city with the potential to be other great cultural centers of vibrancy in our town. Finding new areas to invest in based on the successful model of Downtown Denton is a great idea.
Simply diluting the current investment in Downtown Denton, however, in order to invest in other areas without any specific vision on what precisely we are hoping to accomplish in those areas is not good policy. For one thing, the entire thrust of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant is to improve the downtown streetscape, encourage historic preservation and character, and incentivize projects that enhance the walkable character of the greater downtown area. If we divert funds to other areas of town, what vision are we trying to fulfill? What criteria will we use to judge the appropriateness of the request and project? What advisory body will advise us on the goals of that area so as help us make sound financial investments?
There appears to be an interest in taking money from downtown and investing it in other areas of town without any thought or vision as to what we are trying to accomplish.
Here are my suggestions:
First, let’s not take away a good thing. Something that has been a simple, low-cost tool in a limited tool box to help bring about the obvious revitalization of Downtown Denton shouldn’t be cast aside. Instead, we ought to be considering upping that financial commitment.
Let’s consider revisiting the goals of the Downtown Reinvestment Grant to better align them and the criteria for the grant to current circumstances. While the immediate square area and the East Hickory area have taken off, there are still many off-street areas that have yet to realize significant investment in the same way. What are the barriers to redevelopment and investment in these areas? How do we get the areas South and North of the square to pop in the same way? Are their certain types of business that we would be better off incentivizing over others in order to keep a healthy mix of businesses downtown? How can we continue the obvious momentum happening around the Downtown Transit Center and encourage underutilized industrial property to flip? Let’s have a robust discussion on these matters with the Downtown Task Force, Main Street Association, and Economic Development Partnership Board to explore further.
Let’s continue the very healthy conversation of finding another area (or two or three) for investment. But let’s separate that conversation from the Downtown Reinvestment Grant. As was mentioned earlier, that grant is connected to a clear vision and clear goals for the specific circumstances of our downtown area. It is fostered and administered by the Downtown Task Force, a volunteer city advisory board created to do just that. Both the vision and mechanics involved in pursuing investment in another area require an entirely different conversation.
Downtown Denton is the jewel crown of our city. It deserves our continued focus and investment.