|Downtown has advantages, but needs sprucing
Mineola’s Main Street director says cooperative efforts can make city’s downtown area vibrant again
|Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor|
June 21, 2006 -- Efforts to revitalize Sulphur Springs’ historic downtown business district received a boost Tuesday evening as Mercy Rushing, Main Street director for the city of Mineola, told of the steps taken and successes realized in that community’s efforts to bring new life into its downtown.
Rushing has been the Main Street director in that city since 1994, when more than half the downtown buildings were vacant.
Bringing new life to Mineola was not an easy job, and she said it required a close, cooperative relationship with city government and all the city departments, including those in charge of building code inspections.
While inspections must be rigid, building inspectors must also enforce the code not in black and white, but in gray, she said, indicating the need for flexibility in the code’s application.
Mineola uses the International Building Code, as does Sulphur Springs. Prior to Mineola’s adoption of the international building standards several years ago, a major fire destroyed three buildings in that downtown area, due partly to the lack of uniform inspections.
Along with help from the city, community residents pitched in to turn downtown around.
“It was a lot of volunteers and a lot of effort on a lot of people’s part,” she said. “I led them to the program that they wanted to have, and now we have 95 percent occupancy with a waiting list on the fine location we have in the downtown area.”
With that kind of help, Rushing said, “You would be surprised what you can do.”
Along with the high rate of first-floor occupancy, Rushing said, there is an 80 percent occupancy rate for second floors of downtown buildings.
Reviving the downtown area in Mineola, she said, has played a major role in attracting three strip shopping centers and a super Wal-Mart store to the community of just more than 5,000 population.
After taking time to look over Sulphur Springs’ downtown area and to meet with business owners, Rushing said there are many more advantages here than in Mineola, but one thing was obvious.
“I look around and see you have got a lot of historic buildings that may need some more sprucing up,” she said.
Rushing pointed to the courthouse restoration as a starting place and a focal point in the downtown area.
“One of the things you have is that this is a county seat,” she said. “You have a beautifully restored courthouse, you are known for your dairy and the museum. I think you need to capitalize on that heritage and promote it more.”
Rushing presented information from the Texas Main Street Project newsletter that said empty buildings can mean a substantial loss of revenue for the community.
The losses include an estimated $125,000 in sales at a location; $15,000 in salaries; $6,000 in rents; $5,600 in business profits; $875 in property taxes; more than $50,000 in property values; and losses in advertising and utilities sales and interest on business loans in a single year.
Mineola, through the cooperative efforts of the community, was able to achieve Main Street status even though it is not a county seat, which is unusual for a Main Street City.
She said while being a Main Street City does not give money to the city, it does make many resources available through networking with other Main Street communities.
Under Rushing’s leadership, Mineola’s Main Street program has received recognition as a National Main Street City.
Gaining that status and recognition was not cheap, but having the designation proved to be a significant factor in applying for and receiving grants.
Revenue from the hotel occupancy tax in Mineola is used to support the Main Street director’s salary and attract new business and people with an emphasis on “quality of life.” The tax generates less than $10,000 a year because there are no hotels or motels in the Mineola but there are five bed and breakfast operations.
Along with suggestions for seeking Main Street status, Rushing reiterated that cooperation with the city and its departments was necessary in revitalization efforts, especially in meeting code requirements enforced by the city.
Following the presentation, Downtown Business Alliance members were given a questionnaire asking individual members in what ways they would like to see the downtown improve in both the short term and long term, along with what can be done to implement the changes.