By Emily Koller, THC Planner, Town Square Initiative

The Town Square Initiative (TSI), a relatively new Texas Historical Commission (THC) program, is already experiencing results from its efforts to meld beneficial elements from two of the agency’s marquee programs.

The THC’s Texas Historic Courthouse Preservation Program and Texas Main Street Program assist communities with contributions by local governments and the state. The TSI is uniquely positioned to leverage these investments in Texas communities that have participated in the THC’s courthouse and Main Street programs.

Using the historic preservation-based economic development approach of the Main Street program, the TSI is designed to provide more-specialized services to cities with recently restored courthouses or other major public investments.

“Ideally, this will spur additional redevelopment projects and further invigorate downtowns,” says Brad Patterson, director of the THC’s Community Heritage Development Division, which oversees the program. “We’re hoping communities will take advantage of our agency’s preservation expertise in historic downtown areas. These services can provide an impressive impact on local economies.”

Nearly two years after its inception, the TSI offers an array of advanced revitalization services that address the challenges of turning vacant and underutilized properties into vibrant, economically viable projects. An interdisciplinary team comprised of an architect, planner, and economic development specialist work closely with communities to provide project assistance.

Picture of a building
Watermelon Mills Coffee Shop is one of Mount Vernon’s recent downtown success stories.

This expert advice focuses on three primary areas: conceptual design and financial feasibility studies for vacant buildings; coordinated downtown planning strategies to facilitate downtown investment; and market exposure of downtown properties to attract investors who value unique historical qualities.

In 2014, Mount Vernon Main Street agreed to participate as a TSI pilot city upon completion of the downtown Franklin County Courthouse restoration project. The TSI team worked with community members to complete a downtown strategy report with a goal of filling vacancies and creating a diverse, sustainable business mix.

After a series of open houses, well-attended presentations, conversations with property owners, and a consumer survey, the TSI drafted a highly visual set of recommendations. These suggestions focused on public improvements, a coordinated approach to business recruitment, key policy changes, and a catalyst redevelopment proposal for one of the premier, but as yet vacant, downtown buildings. These efforts, coupled with the active engagement of several new families committed to investing in downtown and along the historic Bankhead Highway, helped establish the strategy report’s vision.

Picture of the inside of a restaurant
Watermelon Mills Coffee Shop is one of Mount Vernon’s recent downtown success stories thanks to the Town Square Initiative.

The momentum created by that process instilled confidence for the new investors and entrepreneurs. Today, five spaces on the square documented as vacant during the planning process are now either occupied with impressive new businesses, or undergoing substantial rehabilitations with grand openings in the works.

Mount Vernon Main Street Manager Carolyn Teague, a longtime resident and business owner, recalled a recent evening downtown, when the courthouse square buzzed with life and activity. Storefronts were lit; diners enjoyed pizza, beer, and music at a new restaurant; friends chatted outside a quaint coffee shop; and kids ran and played in the plaza—all with a backdrop of the recently restored 1912 Franklin County Courthouse.

“If you’d told me it would look like this a year and a half ago, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.

Mount Vernon Main Street members are especially proud of several recent projects that draw residents and visitors downtown and add to the city’s vibrancy. Watermelon Mills Coffee Shop is housed in a beautifully restored corner building that reactivates the southeast side of the square, which lost several buildings to fire years ago. The shop—completed by new Mount Vernon residents Shannon and Greg Ostertag—celebrated its grand opening in September 2016.

The TSI also assisted with the planning of Steve O’s Pizza and Pub, a brick oven pizza restaurant in the historic Fleming Building that opened in May 2016. The business provided a much-needed evening gathering spot for drinks, conversation, and entertainment.

Picture of a building
Another TSI-assisted rehabilitation project in Mount Vernon is Steve O’s Pizza & Pub.

The M.L. Edwards Store, located in a historic two-story building on the west side of the square, is also undergoing a complete rehabilitation by the Ostertags. It will reopen later this year with a café, home goods store, first-floor commercial kitchen, and second-floor event space.

In addition, the Mount Vernon Main Street Program is actively working on two other projects identified in the downtown strategy report. These include the pursuit of a National Register Historic District designation to facilitate additional tax credit projects, and a public space design for the historic Smokey Row commercial area.

“We’re proud to have introduced the Town Square Initiative to play a part in bringing people together to craft a vision for Mount Vernon’s downtown,” Patterson said. “We’re hoping we can bring this beneficial program to other communities across Texas to help spur preservation-based projects and small-scale, high-quality development.”