Killeen officials apparently have their work cut out for them.
Two developments last week made that clear.
At a special meeting Wednesday, the architect of the Killeen’s latest comprehensive plan questioned city leaders’ commitment to seeing it through.
Later that day, the Justice Department announced a settlement with the city to bring 21 of its public facilities into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — ranging from City Hall to the Killeen Civic and Conference Center.
Certainly, challenges await the city on both fronts.
Kevin Shepherd, the CEO and founder of Dallas-based Verdunity — which is being paid $349,000 to develop a new comprehensive plan for the city — met with city council members, administrators and planning and zoning staff late Wednesday to discuss Killeen’s way forward on the multifaceted project.
The city has put an emphasis on revitalizing the downtown area, but Shepherd questioned how it could be a priority when the current city budget only allocated $3,500 for downtown events.
He was also quick to note that two previous revitalization plans had been abandoned. Shepherd said there was nothing wrong with the city’s 2010 comprehensive plan or the city’s subsequent downtown plan. But in his view, previous city councils “lacked the political will” to bring them to fruition.
Mayor Jose Segarra, who is serving his third term, observed that previous councils started moving on downtown revitalization efforts, but come election time, they lacked the will to get them done.
Shepherd told council members they needed a shared vision if this effort is going to succeed — and he’s right. If council members want the plan to succeed, they need to come to a consensus and move forward with a coordinated initiative.
The problem is whether the city’s voters share that vision.
With Killeen facing major challenges in rebuilding and repairing its roads, addressing the city’s public safety concerns and bringing a full-service grocery store to the city’s northern sector, it’s hard to determine where a downtown revitalization initiative ranks with residents.
Then there’s the matter of city finances.
The city has been fortunate to receive more than $13 million in federal coronavirus relief money as of April 1, with more anticipated in the coming months. Killeen’s sales tax revenues have been up by $12 million since the start of the year, as well.
But a project as complex and challenging as revitalizing the city’s center is something that will take a long-term commitment from council members as well as the city manager if it is to succeed.
Moreover, the project will require promotion of and investment in downtown-area properties — something that has been sorely lacking in the past decade.
Last fall, Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce President John Crutchfield noted that nearly 70% of Killeen’s downtown properties were vacant, with 1.3 million square feet of space available.
While some, like Shepherd, see that as a growth opportunity for the city, others see it as an impediment to drawing interested tenants and investors.
Certainly, there is a nationwide push to redevelop and revitalize city centers, spurred in part by the popular HGTV series, “Home Town.”
The problem is, in order for a town to begin the transformation, there must be a spark — and to date Killeen has lacked that impetus.
Despite plans to upgrade the downtown area’s aesthetics with “streetscaping” and distinctive signage, the fact remains that the city center is losing, rather than gaining tenants.
Over the course of the last 20 years, the city’s two largest churches — First United Methodist and First Baptist — moved their facilities to the southern part of town. Immanuel Lutheran soon followed suit.
A major downtown bank, First Texas Bank, has relocated its headquarters to W.S. Young Drive and First National Bank is in the process of building a five-story headquarters on South Trimmier Road.
But perhaps the biggest blow was the city’s decision to take its police headquarters out of downtown, moving into a $27 million facility in far southeast Killeen in 2010 — the same year the last comprehensive plan took effect.
Tax incentives and promotional campaigns are fine, but Killeen is going to need a long-term strategy — backed by the Killeen Economic Development Corporation — if it hopes to breathe life back into the struggling downtown area.
Meanwhile, city officials also will be dealing with the terms of the settlement agreement to bring nearly two-dozen city-owned facilities into compliance with ADA guidelines.
Completing these changes over the course of the three-year agreement won’t necessarily be easy — or cheap, for that matter.
It’s unclear exactly what accommodations must be made at each facility. The Herald asked the city for an itemized list of mandated changes, but no response was received by press time.
Still, while some fixes may be as simple as installing a handrail or erecting appropriate signage, others may require the reconfiguring of an entrance or restroom — not so simple, or so inexpensive.
The agreement requires the city to hire one or more ADA coordinators, as well as an independent licensed architect who is knowledgeable about ADA architectural accessibility requirements.
But the settlement agreement goes well beyond buildings. It also calls for the city to identify sign language and oral interpreters and arrange for documents to be put into Braille.
In addition, it mandates better accessibility to the city’s website and online services, as well as designation of an employee to coordinate these efforts.
The list of requirements goes on, but suffice it to say that complying with the settlement agreement could be both time-consuming and costly.
Ultimately, Killeen’s fiscal priorities must be dictated by what is deemed a necessary expense:
Bringing the city into ADA compliance. Repairing Killeen’s deteriorating and damaged roads. Dedicating adequate resources to public safety. Providing quality programs and services to the city’s residents.
After paying for all of these must-haves, will any money remain for revitalizing the city’s downtown area? That is something the city’s elected and administrative officials must consider when developing the upcoming municipal budget.
If so, that’s great for the downtown area and the city as a whole.
But if not, council members shouldn’t feel guilty about the choices they make.
Having the political will to address the comprehensive plan is fine, but council members must face the political reality of budget priorities and limited finances as well.
You can’t spend what you don’t have — and responsible elected officials must vote accordingly.