Incentives, possible food trailer court highlight new measures
Rick Bourland worked at a barbecue restaurant in the Lake Travis area when he was younger, and, after moving to Hutto in August, he decided he wanted to get back into the restaurant industry. But he had a problem.
“The cost of trying to open a business these days, it’s pretty extravagant,” he said. “If you’re going to try to build a restaurant, you’re looking at investing $100,000-plus, easily.”
Not having the funds to construct a building, hire staff and invest in all the furniture and equipment necessary to open a new restaurant, Bourland decided to get creative. He knew about the popularity of food trailers in Austin and decided to modify that concept to get his own restaurant off the ground.
Bourland is the type of entrepreneur the City of Hutto is targeting with a series of new measures aimed at helping small businesses, especially restaurants, grow in their first years of business.
By providing incentives for new businesses, city officials say they hope not only to retain and grow small businesses, but also to promote downtown Hutto.
Food trailers in Hutto
More than a year ago, a committee made up of city staff, an Old Town resident, business owners and Mayor Debbie Holland began looking at ways to stimulate and help the business community downtown.
“We have seen several businesses come into town that, in concept, were great,” Holland said. “But for some reason, they couldn’t be long-lasting.”
Interim City Manager David Mitchell said a smaller group made up of the mayor and city staff came up with the idea of a food trailer court in a brainstorming session. He said food trailers would allow potential restaurant owners to experiment and refine their ideas—potentially allowing them to be successful if and when they transition into an actual building.
“[The concept] is to develop an incubator-type program where it allows first-time restaurateurs to get into the market without all of that overhead [cost],” he said.
Another benefit to the food trailers is they would bring food items to Hutto that normally residents would have to travel to find.
Planning Manager Will Guerin said the city is seeking an area in downtown, possibly near the Hutto Co-op site, that could be zoned for food trailers or trucks.
The city is working with the Historic Preservation Commission to develop regulations and quality standards that would apply to mobile food establishments. He said that, while the city has had food trailers come into town for special events, they were permitted as itinerant vendors and had to renew their permits every 10 days. These food trailers would be semipermanent.
For people who own a food trailer and want to transition into a building, or any other retail business looking to open up in the Old Town area, the city has another program aimed at aiding Hutto’s budding entrepreneurs. The City Council approved a downtown incentive program March 22 that targets new businesses and property owners in the city’s historic overlay district.
New retail businesses that are 4,000 square feet or less are eligible for a 100 percent city sales tax rebate for the first year after receiving approval for the program.
“Most businesses fail in the first year of business,” Mitchell said. “So that’s kind of our thought—let’s get some skin in the game with them and show that we’re here to support them, and try and help them as much as we can in that first year to be successful.”
For business property owners who increase their property value by a minimum of 50 percent through new construction or renovations, the city is offering a 100 percent city property tax reimbursement for the first two years and an 80 percent reimbursement in years three through five for buildings 10,000 square feet or less.
To make the region more developer-friendly, certain development fees were slashed by 80–100 percent, and the permitting process was expedited to five days if the permits meet requirements.
In addition to attracting new businesses, the city is implementing strategies to retain them as well. Holland said the city has been focused on educating people about what the downtown area has to offer.
“We know that we have such a large population that lives on the south side of [Hwy.] 79. They exit out of Carl Stern [Boulevard], and they either turn right or left going to Round Rock or Austin. There’s a lot of those people that never cross [Hwy.] 79,” she said.
One of the ways to draw people to the downtown area is through special events such as the Hutto Area Chamber of Commerce Crawfish Festival on April 14.
In conjunction with the festival, the city will hold a ribbon cutting for the Farley Street improvements—a project that added more parking and made the area more event-friendly by adding street lamps, wider sidewalks, metal benches and electric hookups for vendors.
Mitchell said the city could also possibly apply for the Main Street program, a national program that uses the National Trust Main Street Center approach to preserve and revitalize downtown districts.
Holland said for retail businesses to thrive in Hutto, the area needs more daytime traffic, which will come with the opening of the East Williamson Higher Education Center in 2013 and with construction on the college and road projects like FM 685. She said she believes growth is coming soon for Hutto’s commercial district.
“I feel like our engines are idling right now, but they’re starting to rev up a little bit,” she said.
Food trailers on the move
Although Austin has multiple food trailer courts, Hutto’s interest in creating one indicates the concept may be seeping out to nearby cities.
In San Marcos, two trailer parks opened in 2011—Mimi’s Trailer Park Eatery in September and The Hitch: A Mobile Eatery in June.
Leanne Brawner, general manager of Mimi’s, said the court has gourmet food trailers that sell sandwiches, rice and vegetable bowls, hamburgers and Asian cuisine.
“We’re trying to play off of the popularity that it has in Austin,” she said.
She said most of the vendors at Mimi’s are new to the restaurant industry, and many are from San Marcos. Mimi’s tests the food before accepting a food trailer to its lot, and Brawner said they also make sure to choose trailers that sell different food so they are not in competition with one another.
Last year, Interim Hutto City Manager David Mitchell said he and a group from Hutto visited a couple of food trailer parks in Austin to find out what the vendors liked about their setups and what they thought could be improved.
Planning Manager Will Guerin said the city is reviewing what ordinances other cities have adopted related to mobile food establishments.
The Texas Department of State Health Services Food Establishments Group lists about 20 requirements in its mobile food establishments checklist that vary depending on the type of operation. Some of the requirements for the eateries include:
- A liquid waste retention tank
- Potable water
- Hot and cold running water under pressure for sinks
- Soap, paper towels, detergent and sanitizing chemicals
- Equipment for hot and cold holding that is adequate to maintain potentially hazardous food at required temperatures
Downtown incentive program
The property tax and sales tax incentives outlined in the city’s downtown incentive plan apply within the historic overlay district.
New retail businesses 4,000 square feet or less are eligible for a 100 percent city sales tax rebate for the first year.
Property owners who increase their property value by a minimum of 50 percent through new construction or renovations are eligible for 100 percent city property tax reimbursement for the first two years and 80 percent reimbursement in years three through five. This applies to buildings 10,000 square feet or less.
Fees reduced by 80 percent include plat fees; abandonment or dedication of public right of way or easement; and special use, conditional use or zone change requests and building permit fees. The fee for the development application to demolish a non-historic structure is reduced by 100 percent.
The permitting process is expedited to five days for all submissions that meet requirements.