Imagine this: It’s a perfect Saturday morning and you’re walking in Brownsville’s Historic Downtown 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 flowers from one of the twenty or so 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…
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, we were privileged to work with nearly every cultural organization of our city in developing the strategies that addressed our needs pertaining to Arts and Entertainment, Historic Preservation and, of course, Downtown Revitalization.
Early in the planning process it became evident that our community’s resources were hard pressed to meet the need for basic services, let alone our cultural plans. At the end of the process we concluded that the only way to meet our cultural needs was to focus our vision into developing a virtually new economic sector… Culturage Heritage Tourism.
The prime objective of the cultural plan thus became economic development by investing in a particular industry, tourism. This investment would physically redevelop downtown, generate employment, boost property values, increase sales and hotel occupancy taxes, preserve our legacy, restore our heritage and stimulate private investment.
The concept of improving quality of life in a community by fulfilling its cultural needs then offering them to visitors far and wide is not new and has been succesful in countless communities in the US and abroad. A case in point is the City of San Antonio.
We were fortunate to count on the good will and experience of our mentor and consultant, Steve Tillitson, of 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 learned that the tourism industry in San Antonio didn’t flourish by coincidence but by recognizing that the products of the industry are its attractions. San Antonio’s billion dollar a year tourism industry happened because they invested in the attractions. For over a decade they struggled to overcome the skeptics, the lack of funding and major infrastructure issues to convert 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.
What the people of Brownsville wanted and and what we intend to do is to make the Historic Downtown Cultural and Entertainment District a year-round historic, cultural and artistic attraction that will make Brownsville the premier heritage travel destination in the Rio Grande Valley.
We believe this will happen… all we need from you is an open mind, your patience and your persistent support. It reminds us of the guy that asks “How do you eat an elephant?” to which his friend replies “One bite at a time.”
The Cultural Sub-Committe of Imagine Brownsville, eventually referred to as the “Downtown Sub-Committee”, concluded its work in 2010. The Downtown Revitalization chapter of the comprehensive plan is available for download, here, in its original unedited form. Please note that this portion of the study does not include other findings or conclusions related to downtown that may be found elsewhere in the Master Plan.
Although dozens of stakeholders, city staff and key participants collaborated to define its objectives, strategies and conclusions. The urban planning, land use and design concept sections of the study were concieved and the actual report authored by Steve L. Tillotson AIA, Urban Planner of Muñoz Architects, mentioned earlier above. Mr. Tillotson remains deeply involved in the redevelopment of Brownsville’s Historic Downtown District, the Brownsville Performing Arts Academy, the Rio Grande Riverfront Development and other related projects.
We are hopeful this information provides context and perspective on this subject to those interested in learning more about this worthwhile effort. Nearly a decade since completion of the Imagine Brownsville Downtown Revitalization Plan, much may have changed… except its vision for the future. From now on, it’s up to you!