By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
The old First Baptist Church building downtown sits vacant.
On Tuesday, the Killeen City Council is scheduled to vote on a proposed $4.6 million concept plan to redevelop the 79,181-square-foot facility and all of its adjoining buildings, including the singles building across the street.
The city staff is driving the project forward, seeking a completion date before autumn of next year.
But the council is divided.
On Monday morning at 9 a.m., the council will tour the complex and see the project up close.
On Tuesday, one of three prevailing positions will decide the fate of the project.
One side wants to approve the project as is, one side will support it only if the costs drop substantially, while one side just wants to scrap the project altogether and put the building on the market, either to sell it or lease the space.
Three separate uses
The project site plan envisions three distinct areas of operation, each dedicated to meeting some of the city's needs.
This division of the complex lends itself to the strict divide due to the layout. Architects and engineers were instructed to make as few big changes as possible so that costs can be kept down.
The concept plan divides the 80,000 square feet of space fairly evenly – one third for city office relocation, one third for county social services and education, and one third as a special events and arts center.
Of these three, providing space for the city offices is one of the most immediate needs. The city has experienced unparalleled growth in the past decade, with some years carrying a double-digit growth rate.
The project would be a new home for code enforcement, community development and volunteer services.
Code enforcement has already been split into two locations, one office in city hall, the other on Avenue C, because of the rising demand for their services and somewhat static level of their budget and funds for new personnel.
The second partition proposes a home for Bell County offices and social services, as well as a pair of expanding educational facilities. Those include a federal Head Start program and the Richard Milburn Academy, which no longer has the space to accommodate the 85 additional students it wants to enroll by next fall.
Both programs have delivered signed letters of intent to the city.
The third use is the source of most disagreement.
The remaining third is projected to be used as a special events venue and center for showcasing and developing artistic expression.
It's designed to be a Downtown Performing Arts Center, which would encompass an extension of Take 190 West as well as festival events, a place for the Killeen Civic Art Guild, starving artist venues, musical and theatrical performances, workshops and lectures and wedding venues.
Alternative conference center
As much as anything, however, it's designed to be an overflow/alternative venue for the Killeen Civic and Conference Center, providing a lower cost for some of the smaller venues.
This includes the full use of the wedding chapel as well as the 18,000 square feet of sanctuary space, which would ideally become a place for musicians and other stage venues.
Connie Kuehle, director of the KCCC and visitors bureau said the conference center is packed on a weekly basis, so much so that they are turning away a great deal of business.
"We are losing about $20,000 each month because we just can't fit them," Kuehle said. "We try to keep them in town of course, but lately I've heard that places like the Plaza (Hotel) and Shilo (Inn) are getting booked up too."
Several council members have expressed doubt as to the reliability of those estimates, and whether they translate directly into income at this new facility.
Kuehle said the facility proposed in the First Baptist project is highly adaptable and would fit the city's needs perfectly, as a venue to complement the KCCC.
"The rates would be less, small birthday parties, weddings. We do a lot of weddings and receptions at the conference center. The little chapel would be perfect," Kuehle said.
Councilman Ernest Wilkerson said the sanctuary isn't a good venue for music, and there are serious questions as to whether that facility would really draw people to it. The location, parking and attractiveness of the area differs greatly from the conference center.
"We do not have a purpose for that sanctuary," Wilkerson said Friday. "It's not acoustically viable – you'd have to spend a half a million dollars to just get the acoustics right."
City Manager Connie Green said presentation is important in this project, because it's a symbol of downtown investment.
"We're trying to create a center of activity to downtown," Green said. "There is a lack of civic activities in our community. This project will become a catalyst for visitorship in downtown Killeen, bring historic lighting, crosswalks, other investments in downtown designed to make it visitor friendly.
"We need to create a sense of place and identity of our downtown community."
Councilman Juan Rivera said he supports the project as proposed. He said the city has already dug itself into a hole with the original purchase of the building, which signified a commitment to improve the downtown area.
"We can't afford to build a new city hall," Rivera said. "If we don't spend what we need to spend right now, if we wait another year, the cost is going to be tremendous. You all took a chance to buy the church. Now let's take a chance and trust the staff to do their job and get a good project. We cannot go back in time and undo what has already been done."
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568.