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Posted: Sunday, August 15, 2010 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:13 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Anthony Scott

Killeen Daily Herald

The smell of spilled beer rises off the sun-heated sidewalk and little foot traffic can be seen along Gray Street. A homeless woman sits with her belongings in bags as cars drive by without stopping.

This could be downtown Killeen on any number of summer afternoons. This time, it was Thursday.

A stigma still persists that there is crime in the area as well, and many businesses and shoppers have for the most part shied away from venturing into downtown Killeen.

These things don't faze some people who have hope that the area can be revitalized.

Those people include city leaders working on a detailed plan for a downtown economic makeover. Others include Lynn Ridley, who owns Wannabe's Café on Avenue D, one of the few all-organic businesses in the Killeen area.

"Avenue D used to be a place for the hookers to go," Ridley said as she walked outside of her café. "You still hear about that, too. We're trying to get rid of that stigma. But as far as revitalization, these were the first two buildings to be done."

The efforts have so far been slow as city council continues to make decisions on what it will do to restore the area. It most recently delayed a public hearing on the downtown plan in favor of focusing on the city budget.

Ridley pointed out the Primerica Financial building and her own, looking up at the façade. Both received city grants that are part of the revitalization plan to restore facades in a historically sensitive manner.

The brick building is now painted a fresh coat of blue and lacks the stucco that covers many neighboring buildings. Its "1897" corner stone would even be fully visible if the city of Killeen's IT building didn't have stucco covering the nine and the seven.

"Imagine this," she said. "There are a lot of these folks who have been around here for 50 years; so they're not impressed. There's been a lot of rhetoric, but what I hope is to let people know, it's not only coming; it's here. It's already started."

Transformation

The city's downtown plan has a number of changes outlined for the area, such as an arts and entertainment district where Ridley is located.

It will also include a greenbelt neighborhood and mixed-use commercial districts. One such district will be the revamped historic district along Gray Street.

Down the block from Ridley, workers unloaded a truck Friday morning at one of downtown's oldest businesses, Modern TV and Appliance. Owner Billy Mills was nearby running the business his father, Tommy Mills, started in 1957. Mills said he remembers the transformation downtown went through in the late '60s and early '70s when morals were lax, hair was long and when Jane Fonda was burning the American flag downtown.

"When towns were small, all the businesses were downtown - the churches, the banks," he said. "As the town's spread out, the business district moved."

During the early '70s, he said, a lot of businesses left downtown and the Leave-it-to-Beaver atmosphere began to change. Many businesses left for areas with more traffic, such as Veterans Memorial Boulevard and the Killeen Mall.

"Businesses like to be where traffic is and as that happens downtowns tend to deteriorate," Mills said.

It was after this collapse in the downtown economy, Avenue D became a widely known hot spot come payday for soldiers looking for women of cheap virtue.

According to Killeen Police Department Spokeswoman Caroll Smith, Avenue D isn't so much a spot to find prostitution anymore. Much of that business packed up in the mid-'90s and also relocated to high-traffic spots like low-end motels charging by the hour.

Still, low traffic could turn around in the coming decade for the taxable businesses in downtown as malls have begun to lose their luster to businesses.

"Malls are not as popular as they used to be," Mills said. "If you look around, mixed-use development is a big thing."

Finding focus

The downtown plan focuses on about 60 acres that span from Veterans Memorial Boulevard to Rancier Avenue. It proposes a mixed-use development in this area. To fund it the city created a $53 million Tax Increment Financing Zone (TIRZ), a financing mechanism that typically functions off sales taxes. The TIRZ is set to last 20 years.

A number of other projects the city is looking at for downtown tie into the overall future. The city plans to look into the feasibility of a museum, a bigger library and a new city hall. Officials also plan to make the former First Baptist Church building into a venue for arts and cultural activity.

Senior Planner Beverly Zendt said the building will house city service offices, county offices and the Richard Milburn Academy.

There will also be a performing arts venue where the sanctuary was and conference space. The Killeen Civic Art Guild will also hold classes there and conduct meetings.

Public hearings for the downtown plan were rescheduled from Tuesday's council meeting for sometime in October. The plan is available at the city website, www.ci.killeen.tx.us.

Contact Anthony Scott at ascott@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568.

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