The issue: City leaders are using property studies and committees to figure out what businesses might succeed in downtown Brownwood.
The impact: They hope the right combination of businesses, in the right places, might help revitalize the struggling area.
In April of this year, The Atlantic magazine ran an article called “The Great Retail Apocalypse of 2017.” In June the Financial Times published “Will the death of US retail be the next big short?”, and in May Warren Buffet said, “The department store is online now,” according to Business Insider.
It is, in short, a tricky time for traditional brick-and-mortar retailers, and perhaps nowhere more so than the nation’s rural areas. Already Brownwood has seen the closure of several national retailers in the past year, most of which also shuttered many other stores across the country. But as the national brands leave, some see an opportunity for the resurgence of the mom-and-pop shop. It’s an opportunity that downtown Brownwood hopes to capitalize on.
Eric Evans is the artistic director at Brownwood’s Lyric Theatre and a leader of Downtown Brownwood, Inc. “I believe that retail environments are shifting away from big box stores to a certain extent,” Evans said. “We’re going to be looking for the entrepreneurs.”
He mentioned That Crane Store, a downtown women’s clothing shop that recently relocated to the area, as a precedent. “In the downtown area we see success with dress shops,” he said. “We know this is a successful destination for people who want to buy women’s clothing. With that being said, I don’t know if we need any more women’s clothing.”
Evans has long had grand visions for downtown Brownwood — he pictures a riverwalk connecting the area with Riverside Park, and a dozen or so new restaurants with trendy menus and craft beers. But he acknowledges the obstacles to such a project. “It would cost millions of dollars,” he said. “Literally millions and millions of dollars.”
Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce director Ray Tipton has put the bar a bit lower for now. “We’re trying to be realistic,” he said. “If we can, through this effort, get five new businesses downtown, I think that would help with the revitalization effort.”
Tipton has formed a small committee to help facilitate downtown growth, and said the chamber has commissioned a property study to help business owners find the right place for them. “If we do talk to somebody who’s interested in going downtown, I don’t want them necessarily going to the first vacant building that’s available,” he said. “We really want to look at a strategy of what’s the best fit for certain types of businesses.”
Tipton said the 270 downtown-area properties are already more occupied than one would think. “But when you look at it, a lot of them are service-oriented,” he said. “Those businesses are essential to the community. We need them. But they don’t generate foot traffic like retail and restaurants do.”
He envisions five new businesses, a combination of dining and mom-and-pop retail, that will help spur foot traffic again.
Tipton said the Municipal Development District’s Building Improvement Incentive Program will help with attracting those entrepreneurs. “That can be an important part of getting new businesses here to help start up, to help offset a little bit of that cost,” he said.
MDD executive director Guy Andrews said the organization also hopes to differentiate downtown a bit more obviously. “The thing we need … is wayfinding, and getting people pointed towards that,” Andrews said. “Maybe create some archways and stuff into that district to kind of distinguish it, so people know, ‘Oh, I’m in downtown now.’”
He said there are encouraging trends about the next generation that may help downtown Brownwood if it can take advantage. “Millennials prefer to be downtown, statistically speaking,” he said.
Evans also said revitalizing downtown could help attract a youth movement. “If we can get people coming downtown they might say, yeah, let’s listen to a concert and grab a bite and then go out afterwards. That’s a very younger thing to do — people my age don’t do that,” he said. “Guys your age are like, hey, it’s 10:30, what can I do?”