Is downtown truly flourishing?

Joseph Brown | The ItemDespite an economic boom in Huntsville, the downtown district has struggled to attract new businesses with nearly 15% of storefronts remaining vacant.  

It’s no secret that Huntsville is booming, but the same cannot be said for the city’s historic downtown district.

Nearly every year, city officials propose subtle changes to the historic business district — with the exploration of adding a public restroom and placing power lines underground along 12th Street in the city council’s 2020 Strategic Plan.

But is that enough? As part of an initiative seeking public input, The Item reached out to various community members to gauge how they felt about Downtown Huntsville.

“It’s a really big traffic area Theres constantly cars so it’s not really a ‘let’s sit down and talk’ kind of area … it’s pretty loud and gets congested,” Sam Houston State University student Lesly Rivera said, adding that she would like street lights to be added to the downtown, as it can become quite dark in that area at night.

Street lights are one thing that could soon be added to the downtown area, as the city recently received funding for 17 additional decorative street lamps, according to Tammy Gann, the city’s director of economic development.

According to the city of Huntsville’s 2019 Transportation Master Plan, converting 10th and 11th Streets into a one-way couplet could be in the works in the distant future — increasing the space for turn lanes, additional thru lanes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks while maintaining street parking.

The Transportation Master Plan continues:

“Lowering the speed limit and improving pedestrian walkability can create a downtown atmosphere promoting social and economic benefits. This would also provide an opportunity to develop livable streets along the corridor to convert it into a destination rather than a pass-through.”

However, the plan also notes that more traffic analysis will be needed to fully determine the impact of converting 10th and 11th Street to one-way streets.

Another transportation initiative undertaken by the city recently was the implementation of a shared mobility scooter program, which launched the creation of GOAT Huntsville. The program was initiated last summer to try to help alleviate the traffic problem until this major street conversion can take place, intending to help students on campus find easy access to downtown.

According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau and Sam Houston State University, college students make up nearly half of the city’s population. However almost every student interviewed by The Item reported that they hardly ever go to the area, if ever at all.

“I feel like there’s nothing down there that I’m interested in,” SHSU student Ruth Foulard said, adding that a true coffee shop and more local eateries where she could study with friends would definitely increase her patronage downtown.

“I looked up coffee shops and they’re all 30 minutes away. I would totally go if there was a coffee shop down there,” Foulard added.

SHSU student Samantha Smith would agree. A self-proclaimed “army brat”, Smith has spent her life traveling with her parents, experiencing many small town downtowns, and though she would say that Huntsville’s is not the worst she’s ever seen, it’s “definitely not the best”.

“It’s a small downtown ... it’s not exactly thriving, but it’s not failing. It’s more updated than a lot of places in Texas, but it’s not a lively place,” Smith said.

For Smith, it would take much more to get her to the area.

“It’s a lot of antiquing and I can’t picture that a lot of college students would be into some grandma shopping,” Smith said, adding that she would like to see more updated stores, compensating for the “run down” West Hill Mall.

“Something more focused on interest based, because instead it’s just the scattered shops that you just look at and you’re like ‘okay, I’m not sure what’s going on in there,’” Smith said.

Fellow student Katie Kennedy is in agreement.

“The stuff they have right now is good, but it doesn’t really draw in the college students as much as it could. I like antique shops, but once I go there once, I don’t really want to go there again, so I feel like if you had more relevant stuff that drew in more college age or older people – obviously this is a town and not just a college – that was more interactive and newer, not just what’s been there as long as it has,” Kennedy said.

Downtown’s antique stores currently make up roughly 20% of the storefronts, and while many community members said they did occasionally enjoy a trip to them, everyone who participated in the study was in agreement that the area is in need of local food and businesses that are open after 5 p.m.

Only a small handful of downtown businesses currently operate beyond “typical work hours”. In the past decade, downtown businesses, especially those in the food sector that would typically stay open later, have seen significant turnover, most recently with the closure of The Patio restaurant and bar, raising questions for locals concerning the viability of the area.

12th street bar has been open in “one-way-or-another” since 2012 and owner Bryan Doyle notes the changes he’s seen downtown since that time, noticing the turnover of businesses drawing people to the area after five.

“When we first opened, some of the main things that were different, I guess what was most recently The Patio was Stardust, and then Epic Lounge was open (down the street), so we thought it felt like some semblance of a nightlife, but then things sort of just keep opening and closing, I guess is the best pattern,” Doyle said.

“As a business owner, I’m sort of ambivalent, it’s unfortunate that they closed unless they closed by choice for better opportunity, but as somebody that lives down here, it’s curious, it makes me wonder why, if it’s something that has to do with the capacity of downtown to hold things like that, or if it’s individual instances of each business having its own reasons.”

Partnership with the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC) – a regional organization helping local governments solve area wide problems of regional development and managing change – has outlined goals to transform Downtown Huntsville into a “University Village” through the 2013 Harnessing Huntsville’s Potential Report.

Through their Bringing Back Main Street program, H-GAC helps local governments, non-profits, businesses and other stakeholders learn to work together to implement revitalization programs for historic downtown areas. Similarly, Huntsville’s 2007 Economic Development Strategic Plan outlines a desire for downtown redevelopment to bridge a connection between SHSU and the historic downtown. However, in the years since these plans, many would argue that not enough has been done.

“Every time I drive through it I think, it could be really awesome … there’s so much potential,” Hannah Powell said while sitting at an outside patio table, enjoying a sunny day with lattes and friends at Starbucks. Powell notes that they feel there is no place downtown where they can meet to enjoy a light conversation.

When asked what the city’s plans are for the future of downtown, city manager Aron Kulhavy and director of economic development Tammy Gann did not provide specific solutions.

“Maintaining our vibrancy downtown with businesses that operate beyond your typical work hours and drawing a diverse crowd,” Gann said.