Dark spaces in downtown Kilgore are even more obvious in the bustle and bright lights of the Christmas season – the reasons behind the shadowy storefronts aren’t always so clear to the naked eye.
One factor, though, is well-known to city leaders and stakeholders: buildings throughout the community are getting older, by years and decades, as modern codes and ordinances pass them by. Keeping a property up-to-date and occupiable can become prohibitively expensive when costly life and safety regulations must be applied.
They’re necessary, required by law, and a new staff-and-citizen task force at Kilgore City Hall is working to make them as affordable as possible for the health – and economic vitality – of the community.
Fire detection and suppression, in particular, is very much on officials’ minds.
The conversation was already underway when the Tanline salon caught fire Nov. 23. For Kilgore City Manager Josh Selleck, it’s a tragic loss that highlights a broader question, throughout Kilgore but especially in the Main Street District.
“What condition do downtown properties need to maintain so they’re safe for neighboring and adjacent properties?
The Tanline was a standalone building, gutted by a fire that did not spread to nearby properties. Years back, the Maness Furniture fire of July 2010 was also contained to a single building.
The threat of fire, among other life/safety issues, remains. Detection is one of the main hurdles to downtown progress, Selleck said, catching old buildings up to the current fire code so they can be occupied.
“The Tanline fire, we believe based on the evidence, that fire was going on for a solid 30 minutes before anyone called it in,” he noted.
Smoke alarms were active and sounding during that period, but they couldn’t be heard outside the property – it was smoke escaping the building that alerted passers-by to call 911.
Across the street, further down and elsewhere in the Main Street area, “They all share common walls with each other. There are blocks that are almost entirely connected downtown. You could lose, potentially, an entire block because all of the structures are connected,” Selleck said, some with detection, many without. “If we were able to incentivize downtown building owners to install systems like that, it would ensure fires are caught earlier.
Otherwise, “If your building goes up because of some condition you allowed to occur in it, you’re potentially putting in jeopardy your neighbor’s property.”
Yes, it is a very expensive process to upgrade an old building, and the city aims to mitigate some of those costs, if possible, to get taxpaying operations into empty spaces.
“As everyone knows, one of the problems downtown is we have a lot of buildings in use but we also have a lot of buildings not in use and some are not usable,” Selleck continued. “We put into the budget this year money for a grant program which is going to be developed in this, where we can partner with property owners for life/safety issues.
“Conversations at this point are very preliminary but we’re talking about what kind of incentives we’d be offering and what kind of projects we’d be encouraging in properties that share common walls, neighbors.”
The task force includes, from City Hall, Kilgore City Manager Josh Selleck, Special Services Superintendent B.J. Owen, Planning & Zoning Director Carol Windham, Fire Marshal Brandon Bigos and Community Relations Manager Sonya Waters. The remaining participants are Main Street Advisory Board President Bill Woodall (Kilgore News Herald Co-Publisher), board member Vickie Raymond and downtown stakeholder Julia Metz (of J deGraffenried Dentistry).
The initial conversation was sparked by an interest in getting more downtown properties leasable, back into service.
“My goal in trying to get this going is to increase occupancy downtown,” Woodall said. “As a taxpayer and as a member of the Main Street Advisory Board, I don’t like seeing dark spaces when we have Mingle & Jingle and the derrick lighting.
“My goal is to find a way to get tenants into those buildings. That’s not as easy as it sounds because of many of the spaces don’t meet codes.”
One step will be ‘triage,’ he added, the city’s building inspection personnel tasked with getting taking stock of which buildings are up-to-code and how far the others have to go. That’s community-wide, not just in the Main Street District.
“At some point, to fully implement this plan, every commercial building will have to be inspected,” Woodall added. “Whatever happens, we’re looking at a long rollout.”
One idea being considered, among many in the early stages of the discussion, is a matching grant program that would help property owners mitigate the cost of addressing life and safety issues in their buildings. Tax abatements could be applied to help fund various necessary improvements.
“It’s too preliminary to talk about exactly where we’re going to end up,” Selleck said. “Right now, there are a number of ideas being discussed.”
“The city has spent about as much as it can in terms of the aesthetics downtown on the city infrastructure. The next step is how to ensure the property owners are taking advantage of that and making their buildings usable.”