Imagine this: It's a perfect Saturday morning and you're walking in Brownsville’s Historic Downtown Cultural and Entertainment District.
You're on your way to the beautifully renovated Market Square to buy a little gift for mom directly from a local artist and pick up some locally grown, organic veggies from one of the twenty or so produce stalls, small cafés and artisan shops that now face the pedestrian plaza surrounding the old, iconic building. With a little luck, you’re hoping to catch some of the free outdoor entertainment featured there on weekends and holidays.
Or maybe you're on your way for a late lunch at one of the new restaurants that have opened in perfectly restored historic buildings and, later that evening, you plan to meet friends for beers and salsa dancing at a club on Adams Street.
While you're in the area, you debate whether between hiring a pedicab or walking down the Eleventh Street Pedestrian Corridor to buy tickets for next week's concert at the Capitol Theater Entertainment Complex on Levee Street. You were there to see a foreign film not too long ago and you can't wait for the indoor-outdoor concert featuring artists you thought you’d never see in your home town.
Across the street is the sidewalk café of the newly restored El Jardín Hotel with the now reincarnated Missouri-Pacific Railroad Station serving as the hotel’s lobby and grand entrance. Down the street, on Hope Park, the unsightly Homeland Security fence is being replaced by the massive infrastructure of the new Rio Grande Riverfront…
OMG! The streets are filled with families, couples, students and tourists and you feel proud to call Brownsville your home.
It's not a dream. It's a comprehensive plan underway to implementation… This is what the heart of our city will really look and feel like in the not too distant future.
When it happens, you'll have to thank the thousand plus members of our community who participated in the Imagine Brownsville public hearing process who consistently rated the revitalization of downtown as one of the most pressing issues of our community. Skeptics fell by the wayside as the highest level of support for downtown revitalization first became evident, then undeniable.
As Co-Chair of the Cultural Committee of Imagine Brownsville, I was privileged to work with nearly every cultural organization of our city in developing the strategies that would address our needs pertaining to Arts and Entertainment, Historic Preservation and, of course, Downtown Revitalization. Now transformed into the United Brownsville Downtown Task Force Committee, its mission, and challenge, is to implement these strategies.
Early on we were made aware that due to the high demand in our community for the most basic services, i.e. street repairs, public safety, parks, etc., it would not be realistic to expect more than limited financial support for our cultural plans.
We would probably have to create an entirely new economic sector. Our model would have to leverage our advantages against our limited resources, implement innovative financing and encourage public-private partnerships. Most importantly, our plan should be based on proven case histories and sound economics to stimulate private investment.
We were fortunate to count on the good will and experience of Imagine Brownsville's downtown consultant, Steve Tillitson, of Kell-Muñoz Architects, San Antonio's award-winning urban development and architectural design firm. With his expert guidance, we identified the strategies needed to replicate, to some degree, the incredible success of San Antonio's billion-dollar-a-year Heritage Tourism Industry.
We quickly learned that tourism in San Antonio didn't just happen by itself, as if by spontaneous combustion. Tourism requires an attraction. San Antonio's tourism industry happened because, for over a decade, they struggled to overcome the skeptics, lack of funding and major infrastructure issues. They invested in the attraction: its history, its heritage, and in converting what was then one of the most desolate areas in town into the now world-famous San Antonio River Walk.
We now know that by leveraging our unique geographic location, our multi-cultural resources and our truly distinct historic legacy we can make up for our other limitations. We know that tourism, like any other industry, needs to be invested in and that, once built, it needs to be maintained and continuously improved on.
This is what the people of Brownsville wanted and this is what we intend to do: The Historic Downtown Cultural and Entertainment District will be a year-round historic, cultural and artistic attraction that will make Brownsville the premier heritage travel destination in the Rio Grande Valley. It will significantly increase the property tax base in the most blighted, undervalued and unproductive sector of the city. It will produce a brand new source of sales tax revenues for the city. It will create hundreds of new jobs and dozens of small businesses opportunities. It will improve our quality of life and attract not just visitors but also new businesses to our community.
Believe me, this will all happen, but we do need your patient and persistent support. It reminds me of the guy that asks "How do you eat an elephant?" to which his friend replies "One bite at a time."