Back in January 2017 one of my favorite columnists at this paper, reporting on an Amtrak trip, wrote this about the first stop north of Austin:
“Bless Taylor’s heart,” I wrote, “the Amtrak view of the city isn’t what you’d call a chamber of commerce dream. The downtown view from the train features a building that includes what appears to be a long-abandoned liquor store.”
Not long after the column, Taylor Mayor Brandt Rydell invited me to his fair city for a closer look. I recently heard again from the mayor: “Just a reminder that the offer still stands.” And he teased me with word of “a recent meeting I had with Amtrak to enhance the passenger rail experience in Taylor. If you find time to venture out into the blackland prairie, please let me know.”
Hey, I’m a largely unsupervised journalist. I have plenty of time. So I headed to Taylor and found a mayor proud of his town’s progress, optimistic about its potential and candid about its shortcomings. (FYI, Rydell’s currently running for re-election to the Taylor City Council. Council members pick a mayor from among their own. Kind of a college of cardinals/pope deal.)
Taylor’s Amtrak station really isn’t a station, just an outdoor platform that’s really not a platform, outside an unremarkable Union Pacific building downtown. There’s no waiting room, baggage check, ATM, wi-fi, restroom or vending machine. You can’t even buy at Amtrak ticket at this Amtrak station.
By contrast, the next stop north, in Temple, has an impressively restored station dating back to 1911. Amtrak’s “Great American Stations” webpage says the decidedely ungreat current Taylor station “consists of a platform adjacent to the old Union Pacific Railroad depot, a buff brick structure that houses active UP yard offices.”
And there’s this sad note: “In the 1980s, the majestic I&GN and MP station was demolished.”
There’s no immediate threat that Taylor will lose Amtrak service, but Rydell wants to get ahead of any such threat. Part of the plan includes upgrading the uninviting scene outside the Amtrak stop, which is a block away from a downtown area that’s seeing better days.
Taylor’s indeed something of an outlier — geographically and otherwise — in Williamson County, where growth has been transformative in recent decades. Once an economic center in the area, Tayor’s kind of been left behind Round Rock, Georgetown and Hutto.
“People coming out here now are discovering Taylor, the charm, the quaint nature, and they kind of see really a throwback,” Rydell said. “And we’re getting investors in who are now pumping some money into downtown, fixing up buildings.”
But while things are looking up in parts of downtown Taylor, things haven’t changed much on the stretch of East First Street that’s the limited view of Taylor seen by Amtrak passengers.
“They see this and they think this is the town that time forgot, that Taylor has kind of been left in the dust by some of our sister communities,” Rydell said. “What they find is if they get a block or two off of this area, there’s quite a bit going on in Taylor. So we’re not putting our best foot forward as people stop at the Amtrak station.”
The biggest challenge is the abandoned structure that once was the Hotel Blazilmar.
From the downtown Taylor walking tour guide: “The original 1917 Murphy Hotel changed its name to Hotel Blazilmar for its new owners Howard Bland, A.J. Zilker and T.W. Marse. The four-story structure was fireproof and had steam heat and ceiling fans in each of its 90 rooms. A ballroom on the second floor was used for social gatherings.”
And that is the Zilker, as in Zilker Park.
Where I saw a brick-and-mortar ghost from a town’s past, Rydell saw “all kinds of possibilities,” perhaps as retail-residential mix.
“Some folks have talked about a boutique hotel,” he said. However, he said, “ I think for a weekend stay, you probably don’t want train horns blaring at two in the morning.”
Only two Amtrak trains come through Taylor each day. The northbound Texas Eagle stops here at 10:22 am and the southbound at 5:36 p.m. But there’s enough freight traffic that about the fifth time we were interrupted by train noise Rydell called it “the sound of Taylor.”
The Austin owners of the old hotel say they have no current plans to do anything with it. Anna Drayer told me “certainly we will have plans in the future when I think Taylor has reached a point of economic viability for that happening.”
There’s better hope for the other buildings visible from the train. Jeff Snyder owns those buildings, including the unused one with a “Liquor” sign. In another building — one that was an auto dealership starting 100 years ago — Snyder runs Jeff’s Resurrections, a car restorations outfit. It’s a wonderland for car enthusiasts, especially for those enthused about Jaguars.
Snyder is having plans drawn up to upgrade the old liquor store building.
The other side of the tracks is another story, one Rydell tells with some remorse. The area long was known as “The Line,” an African-American part of town.
A 2004 Austin Chronicle story said, “Because of its proximity to the train depots, the Line had long been a freewheeling part of town, featuring booze and prostitutes, popular with train crews in town on a layover.”
Rydell said it was “part of the Chitlin’ Circuit and a very, very vibrant area (with) a really rich history.”
By the 1990s, the area had significant crime problems. Under an effort called, “Turn Around Taylor,” the city razed a lot of structures in that area. “So now, there’s a lot of empty lots in South Taylor,” he said. “I understand the concerns at the time, but it was almost like ‘Let’s set off a bomb down here but not have a plan to come back in and restore this neighborhood and this community.’”
Any plan to upgrade the train station area should include a plan for that side of the tracks, Rydell said.
He said the recent meeting with Amtrak officials included “some feeling out on … whether Amtrak service was important to us as a community.” It is, he said.
Amtrak stats show there were 5,484 “boardings and alightings” in Taylor in 2017. Many thousands more peered from the train as it came through town and saw something other than Taylor’s best side.
Todd Stennis, an Amtrak senior manager for state relations, said, “We had a productive meeting with both the mayor and city manager. While we discussed the need for a new facility, no decisions were made regarding any future plans.”
Rydell says Amtrak differentiates his city from others in the area. Taylor’s 2015 downtown master plan says the station “in the heart of downtown has the potential to bring thousands of travelers directly into the downtown core.”
“There’s a way we can leverage that with the Austin market in drawing people out here who just want the unique experience of train travel,” Rydell said, noting the coincidental convenience of a mid-morning arrival from Austin and late afternoon return. Round trip fares from Austin start at $17.
“People have seen here in the last three to five years some things happening in Taylor that they would have never imagined,” Rydell said. “You have a brewery downtown with a fantastic tap room downtown. You have a coffee house. We have luxury loft apartments in downtown Taylor. We’ve got two or three yoga studios.’
Yoga. In Taylor, Texas.
“Five or 10 years ago, you talk about a yoga studio in Taylor and people would roll their eyes at you,” the mayor said.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com