NORTHWEST HOUSTON — In the midst of the economic slump that has taken a toll on retail centers across the Houston area, three volunteer organizations are working to revamp the FM 1960 commercial corridor between Hwy. 249 and I-45.
How can volunteer organizations further improve the FM 1960 corridor between Hwy. 249 and I-45?
Tear down abandoned buildings and improve the area's aesthetics Enter into agreements with Harris County or the City of Houston to promote economic development Reduce traffic congestion Help local businesses network and improve their services Work together to develop a comprehensive improvement plan
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The need for cooperation
The Lone Star College System funded a community assessment of the Northwest Harris County area in September 2009 that identified many crucial issues around the FM 1960 corridor.
The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce; the Cypress Creek Community Coalition, a grassroots organization; and Renaissance 1960, a nonprofit organization, are all leading initiatives to boost economic development. In recent months, these measures have begun to produce positive results.
“There are a number of us that have been involved in trying to elevate the image of the community,” said B. Glenn Wilkerson, a community member who helped organize revitalization efforts. “There are so many wonderful things here for us to be proud of—Lone Star College, the Centrum, the library—and it is important that the main street continue to be one that we can be proud of.”
According to a report commissioned by Renaissance 1960 and compiled by Spillette Consulting Group, the area of FM 1960 that prospered in the 1980s has experienced a steady decline since the late 1990s.
Statistics collected by the Texas Comptroller’s Office show that gross retail sales in the area totaled around $2.4 billion in 2005, but were less than $2.2 billion in 2008.
“There has been deterioration in the 1960 area for many years because we don’t have a unified city government,” said Larry Lipton, co-chair of the Cypress Creek Community Coalition. “There is no unifying force that said, ‘Let’s put the brakes on this and turn it around.’”
The Spillette report identified other problems, such as abandoned buildings, traffic congestion and an increased number of competitive corridors, as contributors to the area’s slump.
In order to combat these issues, the report said the corridor needs a well-funded organization dedicated to its improvement. However, the three volunteer organizations trying to make a difference are making encouraging advancements with minimal funds.
“All of these projects coming together have provided a light for us. They are giving us talking points we can sell,” said Enrique Lima, chair of the economic development committee for the Northwest Houston chamber and broker for a local real estate group.
The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce was one of the first organizations to lead a large-scale development initiative on FM 1960—Green Medians.
Barbara Schlattman, local resident, came up with the idea for Green Medians in 2006. She said she wanted to preserve trees on FM 1960, and when she heard that the Texas Department of Transportation was going to place medians in the road, she decided to plant trees in them.
“I’ve always believed that beauty is for everyone,” Schlattman said. “People are drawn to areas that are beautiful, so people will come to FM 1960 more because it will be a better environment.”
Schlattman partnered with the chamber, developed the Green Medians committee and raised about $500,000 in donations for the project.
The next step for Green Medians is the tree-planting process. TxDOT finished constructing the medians in October 2010, and workers started boring space for irrigation lines for the plants Jan. 11. Barbara Thomason, chamber president, said she expects the trees to be planted by May.
“We are already seeing [a positive effect],” said Thomason. “When you start to see an area uplifted, there is a domino effect. There are already two properties that have been fixed up.”
Cypress Creek Coalition
Lipton, resident and local business owner, founded the Cypress Creek Community Coalition in 2010 with the purpose of revitalizing infrastructure on the 1960 corridor.
One of the organization’s main efforts is to brand the 1960 community in a favorable light.
In order to do this, Lipton said he helped a resident—Wilkerson—change the name of FM 1960 between Hwy. 249 and Aldine Westfield Road to Cypress Creek Parkway. Harris County officially changed the road name in June 2010, and it has put up new signs since then.
“I started working on [the name change] about six years ago,” Wilkerson said. “Cypress Creek was the preferred name. The name farm to market road does not have the same connotation as boulevard or parkway. There is a reason why, years ago, FM 1093 became Westheimer.”
In addition to changing the road’s name, the coalition worked with the state legislature to make it a crime for businesses to use “bandit” signs—signs placed in the right-of-way on roads.
“We have eliminated all of the bandit signs on FM 1960,” Lipton said. “A team of volunteers removes signs, and we can prosecute [businesses who place signs] at the county attorney’s office.”
The nonprofit organization Renaissance 1960 has existed for more than five years, although, it was inactive for most of this time. In 2010, Neal Rackleff, local resident, resurrected the group and began new efforts to revitalize the 1960 corridor.
As chairman of the Renaissance 1960 board, Rackleff helped the organization produce the Spillette study of the area, which also investigated different revitalization strategies.
“We wanted to look at revitalization efforts on the corridor in light of the economic tools that are available to engage in revitalization work,” Rackleff said. “We came to the conclusion that to support and sustain efforts, we need an organization whose full-time focus is to maintain the 1960 corridor.”
In order to fund a full-time revitalization organization, Renaissance 1960 is exploring two economic development agreements—one with Harris County and one with the City of Houston—that could set aside funds for area improvements.
Rackleff said due to the economy, municipalities are hesitant to engage in agreements, but it is important to pursue all possible funding sources.
“I think that people who feel like the problems in the 1960 corridor are not their problems are wrong,” Rackleff said. “We need to stem the tide of economic decay so it won’t spread nearby.”