(Editors note: This is the fourth and final of a series of articles that have examined the hotel’s history, its current condition and the impact it would have on downtown Brownwood if it is restored and reopened.)
From a vantage point in Greenleaf Cemetery, Steve Harris pointed out the view of the Brownwood Hotel about two miles away.
At 12 stories tall, the vacant structure towered over other downtown buildings.
Harris is president of the Greenleaf Cemetery Association and co-owner of Steves’ Market and Deli in downtown Brownwood. Harris is among Brownwood residents who are hopeful a developer will succeed in renovating the building, which was built in 1930 and once served as a Howard Payne University dorm.
Events related to the hotel have moved slowly since Ray Tipton, executive director of the Brownwood Municipal Development District (BMDD), addressed council members in March.
Council members took a step that day that that could lead to the renovation of the hotel at the corner of Fisk and Baker.
The council ratified earlier action by the BMDD board in approving a feasibility study, to be conducted by Houston-based hotel consultant Randy McCaslin, at a cost of $30,000 plus out-of-pocket expenses of up to $5,000.
Tipton told council members the BMDD received a proposal at the BMDD’s request to conduct the study. A developer has expressed interest in the property and the study is a “needed first step” in the process of working with the developer, Tipton said. He did not name the developer. Staff had talked to the hotel’s owner, who has also requested the study and given consent to move forward, Tipton told council members.
“What we want to do is have this feasibility study conducted, find out if the project’s feasible and to what degree and see if the developer wants to do the project,” Tipton told council members. “It’s always been everybody’s dream locally — ‘let’s do something with the Brownwood Hotel.’ I hear that time and again. “I think, for some reason, if it’s not feasible for this developer, we will have a tool which is a necessary first step in getting this project done.”
With the study, the city and BMDD will own the information and can use it to recruit investors and developers, Tipton said. It will be similar to retail market studies used in the past to help recruit new businesses, Tipton told council members.
McCaslin is well known for moving large projects forward with this type of study and has completed studies for projects in several Texas cities, Tipton said. McCaslin has also been involved in several historic hotel renovation projects across the state. Tipton said the BMDD has received a preliminary report from the consultant. “We’ve been reviewing it and we’ve asked for a couple of revisions, based on the number of rooms in the study,” Tipton said. “We’re just waiting for some of those revisions to be done.
“The preliminary numbers seem pretty favorable. What we don’t have in this report are construction costs, and what the ultimate costs would be after you take into consideration the federal and state tax credits and other types of incentives.”
In recent weeks, Tipton has said the owner and developer are communicating. Tipton had no new information as of Friday.
Harris was born in Brownwood but grew up in Waxahachie. Harris recalled riding a bus as a boy to Brownwood, where family members still lived.
“The bus would drop me off, and I’d take my little Instamatic camera when I was just a young boy and walk around downtown, taking pictures of the buildings,” Harris recalled. The Brownwood Hotel was in the background of those photos.
“It is a landmark,” Harris said of the hotel. I think I’ve always been aware of it.”
Growing up in Waxahachie, Harris said, “historic preservation was in your blood. “Here through the years, I’d seen downtown Brownwood deteriorate. City leaders at the time were focused more in the industrial park and Commerce Street, basically. It’s encouraging to me to see this city leadership investing in hotel feasibility studies.
“Just the possibility that the hotel could be renovated, I see as a wonderful thing. It would be a huge economic impact, I think, to not only downtown but to the whole community and to the region. I see the investment taking place downtown, but I’m also here raising my hand, saying ‘don’t forget us out here.’”
Harris referring to the financial needs of the Greenleaf Cemetery Association, which has been struggling to recover from previous mismanagement and the theft of funds by a former cemetery employee.
“We still struggle financially,” Harris said. “My angle is connecting the rich history of Greenleaf Cemetery with the rich history of downtown.”
Harris noted that some of the people connected with the hotel are laid to rest at Greenleaf. “My aunt, who’s buried here, was an elevator attendant,” Harris said. “My mom danced on the ballroom floor.”
A man who ran a coffee shop in the hotel is buried at Greenleaf Cemetery, Harris said.
Harris said he’s hopeful that the old hotel has a future. Whether anything comes of the feasibility study, Harris said, “it shows a willingness, it shows the city’s concerned, and they’re concerned enough to help make that happen.”
Eric Evans, managing director of the Lyric Theatre, recalled working at Burger King as a Brownwood High School students when the hotel had been temporarily converted into an HPU dorm.
“Every once in awhile they’d say ‘come back to the dorm with us,’” Evans said, referring to HPU students. “I got to walk into this — space — and I’m like, ‘oh my word, look at this.’ That was kind of a cool thing to me.
“I remember before that period, that I had gone to see my first musical there, ‘Help help the Globulin’s.’” The play was an an opera in four scenes put on by HPU theatre department, which also put on “The Sound of Music” in the 12th-floor ballroom.
“You could look out onto the city of Brownwood,” Evans said. “It was actually just an absolutely fascinating experience for me. And it honestly made me feel as though Brownwood was one of the largest cities in the world because you just don’t find that tall or that presence of a building in towns that are 18,000.”
“It was very grand. I just thought ‘oh what an amazing space this was.’”
Evans said he is confident the building will be renovated and reopened.
“Something’s going to happen with that facility,” Evans said.
“I believe it will be another pivot point for us. I think there are pivot point moments in the downtown area in our current revitalization efforts.”
Evans said 2014 was a “pivot point” when the renovated Lyric Theatre reopened. Evans believes 2019 will prove to be a pivot point with the opening of “two additional significant places” in downtown Brownwood — the Pioneer Tap House, which opened in July, and Teddy’s Brewhaus, which opens Wednesday.
Evans said he would love to see the renovation of the hotel “on multiple levels. I believe the downtown of a community is the face of a community, and that face is what you’re proud of or what you’re not proud of,” Evans said.
“Any community that has an appreciation for itself is going to make sure that the downtown is well kept, it is as vibrant as it can possibly be … I am enough of an optimist — I would never say it was a blight. I would say it was an opportunity. You can’t really be in the downtown and not see it.”
If the building reopens as a hotel, Evans said, “that is going to be a destination part of the downtown. People will want to go to the downtown. They will want to stay in that hotel, and then they will want to take in what the downtown offers that is entertainment in multiple formats.
“And shopping and downtown businesses is a form of entertainment. If you look at old historic places that have redeveloped themselves, shopping is a destination. Going in, looking, seeing, feeling, touching, not sitting at a desk, scrolling over with a mouse — it’s a different atmosphere.”
Early resident Nancy Boyd, visiting the Bulletin with her husband, Felix, recalled working at the hotel as an elevator operator in the 1950s, when Boyd was a Brownwood High School student. She was known as Nancy Person then.
Boyd said she has two sisters who also worked in the hotel — Betty Ragsdale, who lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Sandra Wardlow, who lives in Houston.
“It was nice, and it was run nice,” Boyd said of the hotel. “We really enjoyed working there.”
Boyd said she hasn’t thought much about the hotel but hopes “they do something with it.”
If the hotel is renovated and reopened, Boyd said, she’ll go back and see it.
“I sure will,” Boyd said.