Business 190 in Killeen isn’t what it used to be; just ask Jerry Herring.
“It’s changed a bunch, and it’s not all for the better,” said Herring, who opened Killeen Glass & Mirror at the corner of Business 190 and Second Street on Aug. 26, 1974.
Herring remembers when Business 190, also known as Veterans Memorial Boulevard, was just a two-lane road, shouldered with a myriad of small businesses, many of them geared to military clientele.
“Major Blair, who used to be mayor of Killeen, had an auto parts store by Zip Cleaners,” Herring said. “We had Killeen Propane and Hardware — that had been in business for years — closed down last year.”
The growth of big box stores, such as Home Depot and Walmart along U.S. Highway 190 in the late 1990s fueled the departure of many businesses, Herring said.
Aging business sector
The once-thriving Business 190 district, which stretches from an appliance store and used-car lot at the intersection with Fort Hood Street to drive-thru beer barns and strip clubs in Harker Heights, has worn down.
After Camp Hood opened in the 1940s, a business boom in Killeen followed. Seventy years later, many of the stick-and-brick buildings that went up swiftly have faded storefronts with paint chipping off. Some buildings are for sale or rent, but others are hopping with customers as traffic zooms by outside.
A hodge-podge of pawn shops, eateries, car dealerships, furniture shops, dry cleaners and, in recent years, tattoo shops and bars, are still in business along Business 190 in Killeen. And, in some places, improvements are being made.
The western portion of the business sector is dotted with newly constructed strip malls, space made available when some of the larger auto dealers moved their operations to the east side of town along U.S. 190. A mix of restaurants, nail salons and cash loan businesses occupy some of those new strip malls.
Another positive sign: Business 190 was repaved a few weeks ago, a move that helped bring in more traffic, according to some business owners.
“Redoing the road was plenty helpful,” said Ashley Kristof, who opened The Gyro Nook with her husband in August in one of the new strip malls in the 100 block of Business 190.
Kristof, 25, said she looked at other locations, including Market Heights, but all were more expensive and farther from Fort Hood.
“During lunchtime, we’re nothing but military,” Kristof said.
While the building where The Gryo Nook is located is new, most of the storefronts in the area look worn from age.
“It does look a little run-down in this area, but the family-run restaurants are hanging in there,” Kristof said.
Opinions vary on how much more run-down the area will get.
“It’s going to continue to go down,” Herring said.
Others aren’t convinced.
“I don’t think it’s going downhill,” said Jessie Heslip, a Killeen resident since 1959. “I think a lot of the businesses keep the storefronts up OK.”
Like other shoppers, she only comes to the business sector for a specific reason, mainly to go to Zip Cleaners.
Last week, however, she brought a friend to Black Angus Meats, a butcher shop with a statue of a cow out front in the 800 block of Business 190. It was the first time she had been in the store.
Robert Brueggemeyer, a manager at Black Angus Meats since 1998, said business has steadily declined over the years.
“It’s been happening since I’ve been here,” he said.
A few blocks away, is the site of the old Midtown Mall, a shopping center with room for large stores. The parking lot, big enough for hundreds of cars, was mostly empty Wednesday.
It was once home to a Woolworth’s retail store and a supermarket. The old Woolworth’s is now called the Midtown Swap Meet, a flea market where vendors can set up a table, though it hasn’t seen one in close to a year. A “closed” sign made out of cardboard is stuck to the front door.
“We’re waiting on the economy to come back,” said owner Dug Kim.
Business is stirring at the other end of the Midtown Mall. The site of the old grocery store, which also spent time as a laser tag playground, is now La Michoacana, a Mexican supermarket chain with more than 200 stores, most of them in Texas. The Killeen store opened in August.
“We’re trying to bring (the Midtown Mall) back to life,” said Rey Salinas, the store manager.
“On a daily basis, we continue to get new customers,” he said, adding the store gets shoppers from Belton and Waco.
Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin said the business sector plays an important role in the city’s economy.
“I think we need to do whatever we can to provide a stimulus for the businesses on Business 190,” he said.
While the city doesn’t have any grants for those businesses, such as an $800 matching grant to improve storefronts in the downtown “historic district,” the mayor said the city’s program to improve the downtown area may bring in people who have to drive along Business 190.
The recent repaving, he said, “has really made that a much more attractive route people can take.”
Corbin said when he moved to Killeen in 1971, there was no “freeway” built, providing incoming soldiers a mandatory glimpse of Killeen’s business districts.
“When they came into town, they came in on either Rancier or 190 — there was no Business 190,” Corbin said. “After the expressway came in, that changed the whole business climate.”
Some business owners are not convinced the city’s plan to plant more trees and improve the sidewalks downtown will make much of a difference.
“I think they’re trying to make it look like downtown Belton, and that’s never going to happen,” Herring said. “I think we need something big downtown to bring them down here.”
However, no one seems to know what that “big” thing might be.