Local business leaders debate whether now is time to join Main Street program

Gabe Semenza

Aug. 1, 2010 at 3:01 a.m.
Updated Aug. 2, 2010 at 3:02 a.m.

Many business leaders say Victoria is on the verge of something big, something great - and momentum for growth is at a notable high.

Drivers of this excitement include $40 million in downtown infrastructure improvements, university expansion, new schools and the promise of looming business deals.

If these accomplishments are the cake, becoming a Texas Main Street program city would serve as the icing, they argue.

While supporters seem to outnumber opponents, debate exists about whether the city should join now. Joining requires money, and plenty of it.

With a shaky economy, critics say the city should close the public checkbook to spending on programs they call inessential.


By a 5-2 vote, the Victoria City Council passed in recent weeks a proposal to co-fund the program, which aims to revitalize and preserve downtown.

The council pledges $65,050 the first year and $72,200 by year five.

Part of the Texas Historical Commission, the program is a joint effort between private and public enterprises. Each side agrees to contribute half the budget, which is $130,000 the first year.

Supporters say now is the time to rebuild downtown's retail, entertainment and restaurant sector - and to ride the wave of enthusiasm to future benefits.

"If not now, when? If not us, who?" said Robby Burdge, a Victoria business owner who spearheaded efforts to apply for the program. "Nothing gets done if it's no one's job to do it."

To join the program, Victoria must employ a full-time director and assistant, and display a commitment to downtown investment.

Dozens of Victoria business leaders - many of whom operate outside the city's downtown - lent their name and time to building support and the application.

"There are people investing in the downtown who are 'make it happen' kind of people," said Louise Hull Patillo, a local businesswoman and Main Street advocate. "If we have a desirable downtown area, it will affect the entire community."

Supporters say a vibrant downtown increases the quality of life, tourism, sales tax and more. It is an indicator of a city's cultural and economic health, they say.

A vibrant downtown would make Dale Fowler's job easier, he said. The Victoria Economic Development Corp. president said outside corporations and manufacturers consider the downtown before relocating to a city.

Municipal funding for the program would come from hotel and motel tax dollars - or taxes paid by visitors to the city. By law, the city cannot spend those taxes on services such as road work, mosquito spraying and grass mowing.

"To say our economy is weak right now is not a reason to stop investing in our future," Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong said. "When you've got this kind of enthusiasm, you have to use it now."


Those who argue against joining the program now applaud local efforts and unity, but say they worry the cart is before the horse.

The city already faces budget shortfalls, and downtown is ill-equipped to handle new business and visitors, they say.

"Within the next few years, you're going to see an economic crisis that most Americans will find absolutely shocking," said David Hagan, one of the two city councilmen who voted against joining the program. "I believe we'll go into a depression in the next few years. The Main Street program is a good project. The timing's just off."

Hagan points to massive federal spending, mounting national debt and unfunded liabilities such as Social Security as signs the national economy will only worsen.

Jeff Williams is a Victoria businessman who ran unsuccessfully this year for a city council position. He said it's dubious the program will have the economic effect supporters want.

"We already put $750,000 into the Convention and Visitors Bureau," he said. "I think we need to slow down on spending. To fund the Main Street program, something else is going to be cut or taxes will increase."

Williams operated a downtown business in 2003, but he moved a year later to Navarro Street. Williams cited what he called lackluster traffic and too few parking spaces as reasons for the move.

"Where are those new businesses going to locate downtown? Where are consumers going to park?" he said.

Gabriel Soliz, the other councilman who voted against joining the program, said he worries the city lacks oversight.

"We're just cutting them a check and saying goodbye and good luck," he said. "It's the minor details I wished we could have addressed before going forward with this."

The state commission is expected to announce in October whether Victoria is accepted into the program.

Since the program's inception in 1981, 25,000 jobs and $2 billion in economic reinvestment were created among the 85 participating programs, the state commission reports.

"Some people try to predict the weather. Some try to predict the economy," Armstrong said. "The fact is no one can see into the future with absolute clarity."



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