One new building could make a huge difference.
That’s what Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra believes, as he pushes a plan to relocate the Bell County Annex to downtown Killeen.
During a July 13 City Council meeting, Segarra said the county is looking to move the annex from its current location on Priest Drive and representatives asked him if a new Killeen location was feasible.
Segarra stressed the need to move the new annex downtown — and he may have the perfect location in mind.
First National Bank Texas is preparing to relocate its downtown bank and corporate headquarters to a new, five-story building taking shape at the corner of Trimmier Road and Central Texas Expressway. The new facility is expected to open this fall.
Segarra said bank representatives have already offered to give the current bank to the county or city. The mayor said the city would demolish the current structure and build a new annex complex on the site.
According to Assistant City Manager Danielle Singh, demolition would cost about $175,000.
Given the fact that the city paid about $2 million for the old First Baptist Church building nearly 20 years ago, the bank property option looks like a steal.
And should the county decide to move its annex offices to the downtown site, the benefits to the area would be significant.
The city has been looking for ways to increase foot traffic downtown, and putting the annex there could be first step to revitalizing the central business district.
In addition to housing offices for the justice of the peace and county tax office, the annex provides a variety of necessary services, including vehicle registrations, birth certificates and marriage licenses.
If the city is able to bring the annex offices downtown, the construction of a distinctive, multi-story building is a must — for both practical and aesthetic reasons.
A prominent building with eye-catching architecture would not only send a message that the city is committed to revitalizing the city’s center, but it would also draw other tenants looking for prestigious office space. Given the relatively compact footprint of the current bank property, Killeen officials also might do well to consider building a multistory parking structure to serve the new structure as well.
With multiple county offices, various other professional offices and perhaps some city services, the new complex could be a magnet for drawing residents to the downtown area.
That’s where the potential transformation really takes shape.
The city could capitalize on the increased traffic downtown by encouraging investors to open restaurants and shops nearby, through tax abatements and other incentives.
And with the city’s current vacancy rate for downtown buildings estimated at 70%, according to the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, investors will have plenty of properties from which to choose.
Of course, one obstacle to increasing the number of visitors to the downtown area is the lack of direct routes from outside the city — and even from inside it.
The only two north-south roads that lead directly to downtown Killeen are Trimmier Road and Florence Road — and both of those are only two lanes north of I-14.
This is in direct contrast to downtown Temple, where Central Avenue is a one-way street, four lanes wide, coming in from I-35, and Adams Avenue runs parallel with the same configuration, heading out of downtown to the interstate.
For west-central Killeen, the only four-lane roads heading north from I-14 are Fort Hood Street, which comes in about 10 blocks west of downtown, and W.S. Young Drive, which bypasses downtown by about two miles to the east.
If Killeen officials want to make the city more accessible, they must commit to a thoroughfare enhancement program — whether that be Florence Road or Trimmier Road.
Belton engaged in such a plan several years ago, widening Central Avenue and placing old-fashioned lamp posts and flags along each side of the road from I-35 to the courthouse square.
Of course, if Killeen were to attempt such a project with Florence or Trimmier, it would extremely expensive and would involve the relocation or demolition of dozens of homes along either road. And unlike Belton or Temple, the roads in question merge into others, with Trimmier becoming Tenth Street and Florence becoming Second Street. That could be confusing to drivers.
But more than anything else, Killeen officials will have to put the city’s money where their mouth is.
If they are committed to drawing people into the downtown area, they must show residents that they are full partners in the effort.
They have taken one potential step, with City Manager Kent Cagle last week outlining a potential plan to pay for an $18 million upgrade of Rancier Avenue — which borders downtown to the north — with Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds.
But a commitment to improving the downtown area must be more than an upgrade in transportation and aesthetics.
Killeen officials didn’t do the city any favors when they moved the police headquarters building out of town 11 years ago, leaving a substation where service is only available by ringing a buzzer.
And although the city did invest in the Killeen Arts and Activities Center and has enacted a well-received streetscaping program, the exodus of three major churches, a bank (and this fall a second bank) and a grocery store have all sent the message that downtown was dying, and that its best years were behind it.
Contrast that with downtown Temple, where city officials signed off on a project to create a three-building complex that combined school district administration headquarters and Workforce Solutions office, along with a plaza, amphitheater and historic train station/museum.
Combined with the existing shops, restaurants and other businesses, the Santa Fe Plaza project served to solidify the city’s center as an important asset.
If Killeen city officials hope to revive the downtown area, they need to embrace a can-do attitude.
They got off to a good start with the hiring of Dallas-based Verdunity to create a long-term comprehensive plan with emphasis on revitalization.
But as Verdunity’s founder said during a visit last spring, it’s up to the city to bring the plan to life — and that means making the downtown area a priority.
Over the last 60 years, Killeen’s central business district has gone from bustling to bedraggled. Since the late 1980s, it has been largely overlooked, ignored and ultimately abandoned.
Bringing the county annex complex into the downtown area could be a major step toward reversing that trend, but it will be up to the city’s leaders and its residents to keep that trend going.
For now, nothing is set in stone. County officials still must be convinced that downtown Killeen is where the annex will move.
But if the city does get the green light, it could be the start of something big.
Just how big will depend on what our city officials do with the opportunity.