Small town atmosphere evokes images of quiet residential neighborhoods with children playing in the street and residents gathering to chat as they conduct their business on the Square. Blanco is fortunate to have this image as a reality. Downtown Blanco serves as the heart of the community with several restaurants, shops, the Post Office, Bindseil Park and city government all located on the Square. This collection brings people to the area for a variety of reasons, and creates a consistent flow of traffic in the area. Blanco also has antique stores, art galleries, and boutiques that, along with the historic architecture of the buildings and courthouse, serve to attract out of town visitors to the area. This does not mean that there are not significant challenges facing Blanco in revitalizing this area. There are many improvements that can be undertaken that will help existing businesses be more successful as well as attract new businesses to the area. Property and business owners, concerned citizens, the Chamber of Commerce, and the city need to coordinate their efforts and activities to ensure that improvements are planned to minimize negative impacts on businesses and improve the overall character of the area.
Public input has shown that residents are concerned with downtown, and want to make improvements to the area. There is a strong desire to Create a thriving downtown that attracts residents and visitors with a variety of activities. By following the recommendations in this plan, this goal can be achieved, and Blanco's downtown can be a source of pride for all residents. These recommendations include:
- Develop a Downtown Committee of the Chamber of Commerce
- Create a unified parking and sidewalk plan for downtown
- Increase the mix of downtown businesses
- Improve the appearance of downtown
- Provide assistance for building owners to maintain and improve their buildings
- Hold regular events downtown
- Provide public restrooms
Develop a Downtown Committee of the Chamber of Commerce
For such a small town, Blanco has many different organizations working on different projects. It may seem inappropriate to recommend creating another group; however, a group focused on the concerns of the downtown property and business owners can serve to coordinate the efforts of the many other groups that are involved downtown. This committee can serve to address lack of communication and cooperation between the many groups, the city, and others. There can be representatives of each of the downtown groups on the Committee to ensure coordination between these groups. It is appropriate for this group to be a committee of the Chamber of Commerce because of the role the Chamber serves assisting local businesses. Also, many of the merchants are likely members of the Chamber already and it is logical to utilize the resources of the Chamber to support this committee.
An opportunity for this group is to survey its members and sponsor seminars to address business needs. There are a variety of organizations, including LCRA, Pedernales Electric Co-op (PEC), Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), Small Business Administration, and others that can provide training seminars for business owners. These can address concerns ranging from succession planning, merchandising, customer service, etc. These seminars can help existing business owners become more successful, leading to potential expansion and more hiring. Also, they can be advertised throughout the county and serve to showcase Blanco as a progressive community and build relationships with businesses in nearby communities.
This organization can also serve an advisory role as the city moves forward with infrastructure improvements in the downtown. Any major improvements, such as sidewalks, underground utilities, etc. will result in limiting the access to businesses for a period of time. The committee can work with the city to schedule work for those times with the least negative impact, and avoid major interruptions.
Create a unified parking and sidewalk plan for downtown
To some degree, having a parking problem is a good thing because it shows that there are people using the downtown. However, parking problems can lead to a decline in business as visitors choose to go elsewhere. Currently, parking is a challenge downtown, particularly on Market Days. There is not a set pattern for parking in downtown. Most cars park straight into the curb. This allows for the most parking; however, it creates a safety issue when these vehicles back out. The state has plans to repave 4th Street, which will result in this area being striped for diagonal parking. The city should follow this pattern for the rest of the Square so all perimeter parking is diagonal. The parking should be designed so that the number of spaces is maximized without compromising safety. There is currently a lot at the courthouse which provides some parking; however, it is not clearly marked for public parking. The landscape plan for the courthouse includes a 25 space parking lot that would help improve overall parking in the downtown. If the city acquires the courthouse, this lot may be used for employee parking; however, it would be available on weekends and evenings for business parking.
As mentioned Market Days regularly creates parking issues downtown. One challenge is vendors taking extra spaces to park their vehicles on the Square. They are supposed to park off the Square and leave the extra spaces for customers. This should be enforced. All vendors should be reminded of the requirement and on Market Day, organizers should actively work with vendors to get them to move their vehicles. In addition, temporary signage can be used to identify parking off the Square for visitors, such as the Church of Christ, which has offered parking for the last three years. The mohair warehouse has also offered parking in the past. There is adequate parking off the Square that can be used on Market Days, but there needs to be directional signage to inform people where to go. The safety improvements discussed in the community development plan will help address this problem by making it easier and safer to cross Hwy 281 and walk to downtown.
Finally, the Uptown Blanco group is developing a 75 space parking lot a block off the Square that should be open within the year. This will address much of the parking concerns; however it will require adequate signage to inform drivers of its location, and there needs to be an obvious and safe pedestrian connection to the Square from this location.
Sidewalks are another amenity that will benefit downtown. The development of sidewalks has been divisive in the past, especially those around the courthouse. Any improvements to the sidewalks should be planned with property and business owners to minimize any potential negative impacts. Sidewalks are necessary to encourage people to visit and stay on the Square. If people can safely and easily walk from business to business they will do so. It has been shown that people walking in downtown will visit more businesses and spend more money than those who stay in their cars.
In addition to sidewalk improvements, there should be additional pedestrian amenities installed. This includes lighting, benches, landscaping, and crosswalks to make walking an attractive activity. These improvements can be provided by businesses, or by the city. Keep Blanco Beautiful currently install and maintains landscaping downtown and this effort should be supported by businesses and the city. It is important that any landscaping be maintained so that it is attractive. Benches can be beneficial because it encourages people to stay longer. If benches are installed, they should be designed to fit the historic character of the area, and be difficult to steal. This may include bolting them to the sidewalk, or making them very heavy. Lighting is important to make downtown safe and appealing after dark. Currently, most businesses close early; however, as downtown becomes more successful, there may be a business interest in staying open later to benefit from evening visitors. Having adequate lighting will make the area attractive to visitors after dark.
Available electrical outlets and water faucets should be included to allow for maintenance of landscaping and lighting, sound, etc. at area events. Finally, there is a need for clearly designated crosswalks in downtown. Because there are not currently sidewalks throughout the Square, it is necessary to cross to the courthouse to get all the way around the Square. There should be crosswalks clearly laid out to allow pedestrians to safely get to the courthouse. Many communities utilize bricks, paint, or other material to clearly define crosswalks. These can be part of an overall design for downtown. Also, as discussed in the community development plan, crosswalks and pedestrian facilities on Hwy 281 should be part of the overall downtown improvements.
Increase the mix of downtown businesses
Blanco is fortunate in that there are many types of businesses on the Square including several restaurants, antiques, government offices, a bank, and more. These businesses serve both the local population and can attract visitors from out of town. There should be an effort to strengthen this mix to increase visitation to downtown. The economic development plan discusses retail recruitment in more detail. The Uptown Blanco project will bring in a new mix of attractions including a theater and performing arts facility. This will attract evening visitors locally and from out of town that will benefit all of downtown. Other businesses on the Square may be willing to be open later to serve this increased evening traffic.
One opportunity that should be pursued is to capitalize on the Real Ale Brewery. Currently, it is located in downtown but is building a larger facility north of town. The brewery could provide a tremendous asset to downtown if they opened a Tap Room on the Square. This could be located in the existing brewery once the new one is completed, or it could be located in another building. Fredericksburg has benefited greatly from allowing open containers on their shopping strip. Blanco could allow this as well, with visitors enjoying a locally brewed beer or glass of wine as they visit local shops. Also, beer aficionados are a potential tourist market to bring to Blanco to tour the brewery and visit the downtown Tap Room.
Improve the appearance of downtown
Many of the improvements discussed above will help improve the appearance of downtown, particularly the lighting, benches, and landscaping. However, there are additional projects that will help the appearance. In addition to improving how the area looks, there may also be a benefit in slowing traffic by creating an image for drivers that there is activity and they need to be more cautious. As discussed in the community development plan, clearing the brush from Town Creek would improve the appearance and help slow traffic by making downtown more visible from Hwy 281. This has been done by Keep Blanco Beautiful (KBB) in the past, but requires more on-going work than a small volunteer group can provide. This may be something the Downtown Committee can spearhead in cooperation with KBB and the City of Blanco. In the past this work was done for community service by minor offenders. This may be an option to provide the necessary labor for the project.
Another opportunity to improve the appearance of downtown is to complete the paving on the Square. Currently, between the curb extensions around the Courthouse, there is dirt. This is unattractive and inconvenient because people often have to step out of their car into puddles or mud. This should be addressed to improve parking and appearance downtown.
The courthouse lawn also provides an opportunity to create a visual destination in downtown. The lawn currently has large trees and grass but little else to attract attention. The Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society has developed a landscape plan for the courthouse and has had some success with implementing aspects of this plan. Any improvements should be made in consideration of the Square as a community destination and create a space that can be multi-purpose. This means it can be used for concerts, such as were held at the courthouse Christmas lighting the Friday after Thanksgiving, as well as a place for downtown visitors to relax and enjoy time in the area. If the city moves forward with plans to purchase the courthouse, the existing landscape plan can be the basis for improvements to the property.
Many communities protect and enhance their appearance through design guidelines which provide standards when buildings are renovated or new ones are built. These guidelines can be mandatory or voluntary, depending on the desires of the community. Designs for buildings in the Historic District currently have to go before the Historic Commission for review, but this does not extend beyond the downtown area. Some communities, such as Fredericksburg, have very strict, mandatory design standards which go so far as to dictate colors that can be used for buildings. Other communities are much more flexible and simply provide general recommendations for how buildings should look. What these communities often use is a picture book of design elements that should be included rather than cumbersome text descriptions. These books can be provided to prospective developers when they approach the city for permits. The goal of design guidelines should not be to create cookie cutter buildings, rather they should create common elements that will unify the appearance of downtown. These guidelines are intended to protect the historic integrity and appearance of the downtown to ensure that the character of the area is not lost as buildings are built or renovated. Guidelines will help protect property values in the area by ensuring quality development and minimize the potential for inappropriate structures to be built.
Before developing any design standards, there must be an education and outreach effort to residents, downtown property and business owners, the Historic Commission, and others to ensure they support the guidelines and understand the benefits they provide. Their support will be necessary if the guidelines are to be successful. Rather than making the design guidelines mandatory, they can be voluntary. Developers who agree to follow the guidelines can be rewarded with assistance to renovate their buildings. This can include grants, easier permitting, fee reductions, etc. Discussed below is a program many communities utilize to help revitalize their downtowns.
Provide assistance for building owners to maintain and improve their buildings
The cost of renovating historic buildings can be daunting for their owners, especially if there is a desire to maintain their historic integrity. Often, these buildings require major investment to return them to a safe and usable condition. Often, property owners are not able to realize adequate rents from the property to justify renovation costs and leave the buildings to deteriorate. This results in a spiral of declining values and appearance throughout downtown which can harm even successful businesses in the area. To combat this, many communities have begun offering assistance to building owners to help them maintain and improve their buildings.
Improving downtown appearance can be as simple as pressure washing buildings and cleaning up weeds, trash, etc. Downtown property owners can come together and hold regular clean up days to improve downtown. There could be cost-sharing to hire a pressure washer for all the buildings, volunteers could plant flowers and provide general clean up. Also, building owners can help improve appearances when their buildings are vacant by painting murals on the windows rather than leaving them open (and dusty) on an empty building. Local high school art students or area artists can be used to paint historic scenes, or even artistic shopping scenes, on the windows so that there is still "life" in the building rather than simply being empty.
One program that has been successful is a fa�ade improvement grant or low interest loan. Cities often set aside anywhere from $10,000 and up that property owners can apply for to use on their buildings. The La Grange Economic Development Corporation offers a 20% matching up to $1,000 for fa�ade improvements. Another option may be to set up a low interest loan pool through local banks. These loans can be offered to property owners for building improvements. The way many communities set this up is to request each bank to provide money that can be administered on a rotating basis by the banks so each will have access to servicing the loans. This may be a better option for Blanco due to the limited resources of city government. Blanco is fortunate to have several local banks that can be called upon to participate in this process.
A tax abatement or tax "freeze" program may also provide needed incentive for owners to improve their buildings. The city may decide to declare the historic district as a reinvestment zone that would allow abatements to be offered for owners who renovate their buildings. The drawback to this is that it can cause resentment among those owners who have done improvements and not benefited from the program. A tax "freeze" may be more palatable to owners and the community as a whole. If a building owner makes improvements and increases the value of the property, the taxes would not immediately rise based on the higher appraisal value. For example, if a building is worth $50,000 and improvements raise the value to $75,000, that increase in value would not be taxed for a set period. The increased taxes could be phased in over time, 100% abatement in year one, 80% in year two, etc. This would allow the owner to begin to recoup the investment in the building before having to pay higher property taxes. Local government would not lose any tax revenue (as they would through abatements) because the original value of the property is still taxed.
Funding options that the city may consider to revitalize downtown are to create a Public Improvement District or a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. These are tools that will generate funds solely for downtown improvements and can be used to fund building improvements, pedestrian enhancements, burying utilities, rent assistance, public restrooms, and other projects. A Public Improvement District (PID) is an additional property tax that is imposed on properties in the district. This additional tax is used for downtown improvements. To establish a PID, over 50% of the property owners in the proposed district would have to support to effort. Austin has a PID for the 6th Street area that exempts properties valued under $500,000. This allows those owners with smaller properties to avoid paying higher taxes. An exemption may be appropriate in Blanco, and could be set based on local needs. A Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) is similar to a PID, except that it does not require an additional property tax. Rather, it uses any additional tax revenues generated by higher values on property in the TIRZ created by public improvements to the area. For example, if the city created a TIRZ, they could issue bonds to build new sidewalks and bury the utilities. Based on these improvements, properties in the TIRZ would increase in appraised value. The taxes generated on that increased value would be used to pay off the bonds. While these programs are a reliable source of funding for downtown improvements, they are often contested by property owners unwilling to increase their taxes, and others in the city who resent tax dollars spent solely to benefit downtown owners. As with many of the recommendations in the comprehensive plan, this would require outreach and education to the public so they realize the benefits of implementing these programs.
Hold regular events downtown
As the heart of Blanco, downtown should serve as a gathering place for community celebrations. Market Days is a regular event that brings vendors and visitors into downtown. There should be more events serving both a larger regional audience, as well as local residents.
There are plans underway to hold a Lavendar Festival in May 2005. There will be an estimated 7,000 visitors to Blanco as part of this event. This marks a tremendous opportunity for local businesses to capitalize on those visitors and create a lasting impression that will bring them back to Blanco in the future. The entire community should support the efforts of the Chamber of Commerce to organize this event and make it successful. An annual festival that is well organized and attended can be a tremendous boon to a small town, Luling's Watermelon Thump has become nationally recognized, as have other small town festivals.
Another event is the "Trail of Lights" during the holidays. Many Hill Country cities participate, and it has become a major tourist attraction for many. This is discussed in the community development plan as it relates to Bindseil Park. Downtown property and business owners should be involved in planning this and making it successful. There should be cost-sharing for lights throughout downtown, and businesses can agree to stay open later and participate in downtown activities to serve "Trail of Light" visitors. Again, the Downtown Committee should take the lead in planning this event to ensure all are involved and benefit from the effort.
Downtown events do not have to be large festivals, they can be simple concerts by local bands, including school bands, sidewalk sales, etc. The Downtown Committee can serve as the organizing group to put together regular events that will generate interest in downtown. Many towns have weekly concerts in the evening where residents can pick up dinner at restaurants on the Square or bring picnic lunches. The lawn in front of the courthouse offers a perfect location for an event like this. Sidewalk sales can be coordinated with business owners and possibly Market Days to bring in the maximum audience. These can be fun events with businesses offering early morning coffee and donuts to bring in folks, or evening "Sip and Save" where visitors can enjoy a beverage while shopping. The benefit of these types of events is the minimal cost involved. Local bands may be willing to play for free, or simply pass a tip jar around the crowd. Most would likely have their own equipment and residents could bring blankets or chairs. The primary issue in holding events downtown is the lack of adequate public restrooms.
Provide public restrooms
Public restrooms are consistently a challenge for any downtown revitalization effort. In order for there to bring visitors into downtown and keep them there, restrooms are a necessity. Blanco currently has facilities in the courthouse that are used for many events in the downtown; however, this places a burden on the Courthouse Society due to the increased utility, cleaning, and related expenses for maintaining the restrooms when heavily used. Providing restrooms should be a mid range goal for the Plan, because it is an expense that is not required until there are regularly large crowds in downtown. One option may be to provide facilities at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center with the City helping with utility costs.
Blanco's downtown is a tremendous opportunity for the community. It offers a connection with the past as well as an asset for the future. Downtown can serve local needs as well as attract visitors to the community, driving the local economy. Implementing this plan will help protect what is already successful in downtown and create opportunities for new and existing businesses to prosper. The biggest challenge facing Blanco currently is a lack of coordination and cooperation in downtown improvement efforts. The first step in implementation should be for all the groups with interests in downtown to come together and agree on the process. This plan is based on the input of the entire community, it is not based on any one group's idea of what should happen downtown. It will be important for there to be consensus before work is undertaken to ensure success and minimize the potential for anyone to have negative impacts from the improvements. Creating a Downtown Committee should be a priority so it can serve as the clearinghouse for all other groups and actions. Improving downtown will help drive the local economy by bringing in tourism dollars and improving quality of life, thereby making Blanco more attractive to prospective businesses. This plan lays the groundwork for long term improvements that the entire community can both participate in and benefit from.