GONZALES — As unique as one small town may think of itself, there's one more — and likely a hundred — that have experienced the same successes or setbacks.
Gonzales is no different when it comes to attempting a path toward preserving some of its downtown architectural history. Flip through any number of similar sized Texas towns and the desire to rehabilitate a once thriving city core runs up against any number of problems, from zoning and noise ordinances to private property rights.
And in the town that made a name of not wanting to give up its property, a local committee is running up against those that wish not be tread upon. But after years of attempts at creating some sort of downtown historic revitalization and preservation program, Barbara Crozier thinks that this time they might just get it right.
“We are trying to incentivize the property owners to continue the restoration and reclamation of our properties downtown,” preached Crozier.
“Everything is still in discussion,” she continued, but made sure to explain that “no one is trying to tell anyone what to do.”
The plan is to create an incentive program that would entice building owners to renovate historic properties that may have seen better days. It would be on a voluntary basis, with no one or no building under pressure to conform. The goal is to create a historic district where all tenants would benefit from increased shopping and business based upon the look and nature of the buildings.
Crozier mentions a “bleeding carcass of downtown” that existed several years ago where after dark, the city would essentially roll up the streets with zero downtown activity after sundown. You could fire a cannon through downtown and not hit anyone, she said.
That has obviously changed, with the addition of several spots of nightlife and boutique shopping destinations. But more can be done, officials say.
Back in June, Gonzales Mayor Connie Kacir sent a letter to potential committee members who would be tasked with forming draft rules and incentives for owners that wanted to opt-in to the program.
“Adopting a historic ordinance is critical in preserving and protecting our historic assets as well as contributing to the future economic base of our city,” the mayor said in the letter.
An advisory committee was formed and agreed upon by city council. There are 15 members. Of those, 13 have direct ties to city government, eight are employed by the city, three are downtown business owners, and all but one are white. They are tasked with reporting to the city council on a monthly basis with their progress.
Crozier has been advocating such a vision since 1998 when she was president of the chamber of commerce. She preaches “profitability through preservation,” where business owners will reap the rewards if everyone bands together for a more vibrant downtown. Voluntary incentives such as city tax breaks are the carrot they are discussing. It would also lead to a “certified local government” that could open up “tremendous grant opportunities” for building revitalization, she said.
Right now, the general thinking is that incentives would be a flat rate off of city property taxes for buildings that are of a certain vintage. The new Golden Chick would not meet the criteria, for example.
The bottom line: a much more desirable community and more rent opportunities for landlords.
But not everyone has been on board, back then and up until now. Local business owner Ken Morrow visited the Inquirer's office for a spirited debate with Crozier. He offered that there was an “element of distrust” amongst business owners that felt left out of the discussions. As an owner of three downtown buildings, he was leery of having some outside committee instruct him of the best way to manage his properties. He also questioned the problem of a landlord getting a tax break for some sort of renovation but not passing that incentive along to their tenants.
Crozier said that anyone who was in the program could opt-out at any time. Morrow said that after getting more information that he would support the measure if it remained voluntary.
An example of a dilapidated building that could be renovated and used for so much more than a pigeon roost is the 1886 Beringer-Coleman Building, they explained. The current owner has let it fall into near ruin, as anyone passing by can see. Some sort of incentive could coax the owner to renovate or even sell, opening a historic property up to a new life.
Just next door, the 1899 Schleyer Bros. Building, home to Sweet B's Dessert Boutique, is an example of a successful partnership between city grants and an owner with a vision. Brie Schauer, who not only owns the business but lives in a renovated apartment upstairs, said that she received grants from the Gonzales Main Street Association and Gonzales Economic Development Corp. for renovations. The result is a vibrant space that is used day and night and adds much to the look of downtown as well as its tax roll.
But grants from existing city programs are still far from the realization of any proposed ordinance. Realizing Crozier's dream from 1998 is still a mountainous mission.
Morrow explained that he felt the current advisory board did not represent downtown, and the only members that do are the ones paid by the city to do so. Crozier wondered then if perhaps the next step would be to include downtown business owners and others with interest at stake.
As it stands, a 24-page document is the rubric from which the advisory committee works. Buildings would have to be submitted for the tax break by its owner — possibly a 20 percent break — and the committee would decide if it met the criteria as historic, or whatever they eventually decide. Once accepted, a building would have to abide by the committee guidelines if the owners were to ever adapt its features. That is the rub that continues to bug Morrow.
Further, Morrow said that he believes that grants that would invite building owners to renovate their currently unoccupied upstairs spaces into apartments, such as Schauer has done at her location, would go a long way to revitalizing downtown into the living, breathing space that so many are advocating for now.
Preservation is a hot topic for historical communities like Gonzales. But getting everyone on the same page might be more difficult than fixing one of those old buildings.