By Rebecca Rose
Harker Heights Herald
It's a vital and popular alternate route to Killeen, close to U.S. Highway 190, situated near one of the most popular shopping spots in Bell County and mere minutes away from one of the biggest hospitals in the region.
Yet the stretch of road known as Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Harker Heights has not seen yet to see the same kind of economic and aesthetic rebirth as other Harker Heights thoroughfares in recent years. While property along roads such as Farm-to-Market 2410 overflow with new development and resident interest, Veterans Memorial Boulevard remains relatively similar to the way it has looked over the past decade.
Some say the potential for more is there, starting with a few simple steps.
While nothing firm has been decided or planned by the council or other civic leaders, during a city council retreat, officials discussed Veterans Memorial Boulevard at length, questioning if the area was ready for a face-lift. Leaders participating in the daylong informative session for staff and council members, discussed what measures could be taken to bolster both its appearance and economic viability of a road many residents point to as all too often overlooked.
One of the biggest needs in the area is the road itself. Potholes, cracks and uneven pavement are cited by some as the biggest issue for drivers commuting through the area. At the meeting, suggested projects included putting medians in or landscaping along the street.
"We would have to work with (Texas Department of Transportation) to do some type of street-scaping," said City Manager Steve Carpenter in an interview with the Herald. "That was one thing the council showed some interest in."
Another consideration was the possibility of starting a Merchants Association to gather business owners on Veterans Memorial Boulevard together to learn what their specific challenges are.
"(We talked about) possible incentives to do some façade improvements," said Carpenter. Façade grants are one way for cities to aid local business owners to help improve the overall look of a community. Façade grants were effective in downtown areas of Belton and Lampasas, where cities sought to breathe life back into older districts.
With Seton Medical Center Harker Heights opening its doors on Monday, businesses are clamoring to get close to the hundreds of medical workers and hospital visitors who could be potential customers.
One big possible draw for new businesses is the opportunity to be close to Harker Heights shoppers without the hefty price tag of some other city's other big commercial hot spots, such as Farm-To-Market 2410.
"At this point, property (on Veterans Memorial Boulevard) is cheaper than other parts of the city," said Carpenter. As land becomes scarcer in Harker Heights, businesses might see the street as a good alternative.
"I think that as land develops in other parts of our city, that becomes more viable," said Carpenter.
Even with fewer traffic counts than Farm-To-Market 2410, one of the key indicators businesses look at when choosing locations, Carpenter said a few new businesses had already seized on the opportunity to buy land at a fraction of the price.
"If you're not as dependent on traffic, it's a good alternative," he said.
Carpenter also said eventually, long term, additional growth in Harker Heights will gravitate toward the city's north side.
"That makes it a more viable area, too, for retail and service," he said.
Wayne McGuiness, a Harker Heights resident for more than 14 years, agreed that there is a huge, untapped potential for what Veterans Memorial could be.
"The opportunities are really unlimited," he said.
McGuiness lives on the south end of Farm-to-Market 2410, near Walmart and close to Seton. As a longtime resident, he said he sees a need for the business community to expand beyond Farm-To-Market 2410, and for the city to maximize economic opportunities in all neighborhoods.
McGuiness pointed out that it wasn't that long ago when Farm-to-Market 2410 was in a similar situation as Veterans Memorial Boulevard.
"That whole area has been upgraded," he said. "There's a lot of new businesses down there - small strip malls, stores, and more."
Complaints about appearance
McGuiness said one of the biggest complaints residents and visitors have about Veterans Memorial Boulevard is the appearance. Before starting with a major economic development plan, businesses can think about simple ways to improve their appearance.
"Paint helps a lot," McGuiness said. "That can really change the way people see the area."
And some business owners are open to potential ideas.
Ronnie Strawn, branch manager with Kirbo's, a Canon copier authorized dealer, said the business moved from Killeen to Harker Heights, drawn by the possibility of being situated close to highway access.
Strawn said the business eyeballed property in Harker Heights along East Central Texas Expressway first, but high prices and other factors steered them away.
"(It can cost) $500,000 for a lot, if you can get (landowners) to sell you," he said.
"This building fit our space requirements for the next 10 years (of expansion)," said Strawn. "The price was about what we were looking for."
Strawn said much of Kirbo's business is contract-driven, meaning he doesn't rely on heavy foot traffic from customers drawn to visit the business by attractive facades or landscaping.
However, he said the business would likely take part in façade grant programs, to help improve appearances in the community.
"(When we moved in) we repainted and made it look a lot nicer," said Strawn. "If there was some grant money available, we would likely (use it). We could put better signage up, and make it look more appealing."
And landscaping the property, which could cost a business anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars, isn't something the company would likely invest in soon. However, Strawn said it wouldn't be something they would turn away.
"That would be a good addition, too," he said. "We would certainly maintain it if that would happen."
As for what will eventually happen, Carpenter said nothing firm has been put forth or placed on any agenda for the council, and that any possible plans would be refined to best suit the needs of the community along Veterans Memorial Boulevard and the city at large before becoming official.
McGuiness said residents like himself want to see businesses working together and with the city to make the most of the area.
"With the introduction of the new hospital, I certainly see big potential," he said. "It could really be a great area."
Contact Rebecca Rose at email@example.com or (254) 501-7548. Follow her on Twitter at KDHBusinessNews.