Thirty years ago, the courthouse squares in San Marcos and Georgetown were blighted and boarded up.
Retailers and restaurants had left the squares in favor of locations near the interstate, while other shops had failed because locals could get to Austin more easily to do their shopping. Historic courthouses with beautiful architecture were surrounded by buildings with decaying facades.
“It was shocking to see photos of what it looked like before,” said Shelly Hargrove, the director of Georgetown’s Main Street Program.
Today, both cities have vibrant town squares and appear to have unlocked a formula for keeping them healthy. San Marcos was recently named one of the 10 most beautiful town squares in the country by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Georgetown has received similar accolades, including the top award for historic downtowns from the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1997.
Both have gorgeous Victorian squares surrounded by thriving businesses. Georgetown is more active during the day, with a bevy of antique stores, restaurants and a street market on some weekends. San Marcos comes alive after dark, with the Texas Music Theater drawing live music acts, and a range of restaurants and bars contributing to a colorful nightlife.
Breathing new life into the squares has preserved the history and authenticity of each city.
“To me, downtowns are a reflection of the community,” said Hargrove, who has traveled to small towns all over the state to get ideas. “As you lose your history and your identity, you lose a lot of what makes a place unique. There is a certain loss of quality of life.
Main Street help
The squares in Georgetown and San Marcos, which sit about 60 miles apart along Interstate 35, could have suffered the fate of other Texas county seats past their glory days, especially after both counties opened new judicial complexes elsewhere. But the two cities have a few things that others don’t.
Both have beautiful rivers that flow near downtown, drawing visitors. Both have universities, drawing thousands of young residents looking for entertainment and dining. Both even have turned old movie theaters into live-performance venues.
But perhaps most importantly, both cities had a dedicated group of volunteers who have given countless hours to preserving their downtowns. And in the 1980s, they got a little help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and its Main Street Program.
The program provides guidance, support and grant money to help cities fix up their downtowns. Georgetown was one of the first cities in Texas to be accepted into the program in 1982. San Marcos followed in 1986.
Over the past 30 years, more than $13 million has flowed into downtown Georgetown through public investment, public-private partnerships and the Main Street Program grants, which help with things such as sign and facade improvements for businesses, Hargrove said. During the past three decades, the private sector kicked in an additional $18 million, she said.
Neither city is resting on its laurels.
“Some people think of revitalization as an event, but it’s a process,” Hargrove said.
Changing the code
Both cities are looking to make their downtowns more pedestrian friendly and more livable, putting restaurants and retail downstairs and condos and apartments upstairs.
“It’s a design that worked for centuries,” said Matthew Lewis, director of planning and development services for San Marcos. In downtown areas with wide sidewalks, lots of trees and buildings brought forward, “this is an environment that makes humans comfortable,” he said.
The city worked to “extract the DNA of the square” and used it to reform zoning and development rules for downtown, Lewis said. Until recently, suburban development codes were being applied to a historic downtown, and it was a bad fit.
The city’s new “smart code” streamlines the permit process for businesses that want to move downtown, as long as they follow a clear set of guidelines to match up with the downtown aesthetic. A developer following the checklist can get a permit in nine days, Lewis said.
The city has also been working to widen sidewalks, narrow road lanes, add bike lanes, install reverse angle parking and bury utility lines, all efforts to make downtown more walkable and appealing, Lewis said. The city also reworked the tax code so that a percentage of downtown property taxes are reinvested directly in downtown.
The number of downtown residents in San Marcos is skyrocketing thanks to higher density development. In 2009, there were 601 bedrooms in downtown. Now there are 1,159, and that number is growing quickly, Lewis said. With plans for a downtown rail station on the proposed Lone Star regional rail line linking San Antonio and Austin, developers are eyeing the area for even more residential spaces.
“The city has gone above and beyond to maintain downtown,” said Travis Kelsey. The Texas State University grad bought the Taproom, a bar and restaurant on the San Marcos square, in 1998. He’s among several Texas State alumni who have stuck around to invest in downtown businesses. “When there are easier and cheaper places to build and develop, it’s great to see people make downtown a priority,” he said.
Over in Georgetown, there are a lot of hammers swinging in downtown. Five new restaurants have opened since October, and five new retailers are expected to open by the fall, Hargrove said. Grape Creek Vineyards recently opened a wine tasting room on the square. City officials hope to attract more wineries and breweries to the area to form a tourist-attracting wine walk.