Yet another initiative to revitalize downtown Killeen.
That’s what the architect of the city’s new comprehensive plan is calling for.
If it seems as if we’ve been down this road several times before, it’s because we have.
Ever since businesses starting moving out of the downtown area in the early 1980s as the town grew southward, the city has proposed several projects and programs to reenergize the central business district — with little success.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city had a prostitution problem downtown that served to deter pedestrian traffic and business development alike. The police department got that under control in a few years, but the public perception of downtown as a high-crime area persisted, and the area’s decline continued.
Meanwhile, businesses were relocating to the new business corridor that was developing along U.S. Highway 190. With the opening of Killeen Mall in 1981, the downtown area found itself in a losing battle for retail businesses and their customers.
The problem escalated further as three large churches — First Baptist, First United Methodist and Immanuel Lutheran — all built new facilities in the southern part of town, taking their sizable congregations with them.
Banks are part of the migration pattern as well. First Texas Bank moved its main facility to South W.S. Young Drive in 2014, and First National Bank Texas is in process of relocating to a five-story headquarters it is building on South Trimmier Road.
And last year, the downtown area’s only grocery store, an H-E-B on Gray Street, closed its doors, forcing nearly residents to travel more than three miles to shop.
Despite the steady drumbeat of downsizing and closings, the city has not wavered in its attempt to bring life back to the downtown area.
Killeen has established a facade grant to help bring old storefronts back to their former glory. It has established enterprise zones, reinvestment zones and now an Innovation Zone to give financial breaks to businesses that move into the area. The city has also designated a Historic District and obtained grant funding to upgrade the area.
In 2012, the city council approved a two-part streetscaping project. Phase I, a $5.4 million project, replaced sidewalks, revamped streets, added landscaping, lighting, plazas and decorative crosswalks in an effort to attract residents, visitors and businesses to the area. The scaled-down, $440,000 second phase, which started in 2018, improved streets and walkways in a two-block span of Avenue D.
Still, the city has sent mixed messages about its commitment to the area.
Killeen made a major investment in purchasing the former First Baptist Church building in 2006, and in 2010 embarked on a $4.2 million redesign project for the 80,000-foot-facility — with plans for a performing arts facility, free clinic, classrooms and office space.
However, that same year, the city moved Killeen Police Department headquarters out of downtown, relocating to a new facility about seven miles south of downtown. Despite the decision to keep a small police presence at the old building, which became known as the North Precinct, many local residents were concerned that crime would increase in the area.
So, where do things stand today?
Well, if you listen to Kevin Shepherd, the founder and CEO of Verdunity Inc, the company crafting the new $349,000 comprehensive plan, the downtown area is full of potential. Killeen Economic Development Corporation President John Crutchfield sees the situation similarly — and both have reason to be optimistic.
Crutchfield said that buildings in the area have a 70% vacancy rate, with many of the buildings being well-maintained and move-in ready. He also points to recent successes, such as the location of the Solix training in facility in 2019, which created 180 jobs downtown.
So, it appears the problem now is just what it’s always been: How to recruit and retain businesses in the city’s aging central business district.
For one thing, as one business owner pointed out, Killeen’s downtown area isn’t easily accessible from local highways. Indeed, it’s a long way from I-14, and most roads leading through downtown are narrow streets that meander through town.
Contrast that with Temple’s downtown area, where an ongoing $10 million renovation project has created a revitalized city center complete with a public plaza and several up-and-coming businesses. Temple’s downtown is served by major four-lane arteries that connect with I-35 and the city’s loop.
Another factor that is working against Killeen’s downtown is that it doesn’t look much like a downtown. Unlike Temple’s city center, which features several established multi-story buildings and a high level of pedestrian traffic, Killeen’s downtown looks much as it did when its was a sleepy cotton-farming town prior to the arrival of Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) in 1942. Most of the buildings are one or two stories in height, and there is little off-street parking available. Judging from the city’s downtown area alone, it is hard to believe that Killeen is a metropolis of more than 150,000 people.
That small-town vibe may be comforting to some, but unless that feeling is backed up by some eclectic shops and interesting restaurants, the area is not likely to be a big draw for most residents.
Apparently, that’s where the new comprehensive plan comes in — involving residents in determining what they want in the area and developing a process to make it happen. Verdunity’s CEO said the plan is to keep local residents and business owners involved throughout the comprehensive plan’s creation — with the goal of building trust, raising community awareness and identifying opportunities for collaboration between the city and residents to improve quality of life throughout the city.
But where this new plan seems to depart from previous redevelopment programs is a focus on incremental change, rather than sudden, large-scale redevelopment.
That scaled-down approach may be just what this plan needs to be successful. There is no harm in thinking big, but you have to have the resources available to reach those lofty goals. By adopting more attainable, incremental goals, residents are more likely to be a part of the process — and remain engaged in it.
Ultimately, as Verdunity’s CEO acknowledged, a plan is only as good as the city’s ability to see it through to fruition. Indeed, it will require strong, consistent leadership in order to achieve substantial results.
Over the past 25 years, Killeen has seen its share of successes in improving the downtown area, and most would acknowledge, it’s seen more than its share of failures as well.
Certainly, the overall look of the central business district is better today than it was 10 years ago. Still, the downtown area is far from what most residents would like it to be.
At some point, Killeen will have to acknowledge that the downtown area’s potential is limited by its infrastructure, its location and unfortunately, by its past.
Making more of the area is definitely a worthwhile goal — and something the city should continually strive to meet. But continuing to believe that downtown Killeen will ever be a major mecca for residents across Central Texas is largely unrealistic. We simply don’t have that much to work with.
But we can make our downtown area a clean, safe and inviting area where people can work, shop and eat when they take a notion.
And if the current plan succeeds in accomplishing that much, it will be money well spent.