It used to be easy finding parking in downtown Amarillo.
"At 5 o'clock everybody left, everybody left," said Beth Duke, who has worked full time in downtown since 1976.
After graduating from Baylor University, Duke worked at the Globe-News for almost 30 years, retiring as the City Editor. She has been the executive director of Center City of Amarillo for the past 13 years.
"Sometimes people (now) say they couldn't find a place to park, and to me that's real progress," she said, "because in the '70s you could have parked anywhere and nobody cared."
Center City hopes to continue making parking a little harder, especially after the workday is done. One way it does that is through a facade grant program, which has given out or will give out more than $1.172 million since 1994.
“We have loved bringing back the neon along Polk Street,” Duke said.
She lists as accomplishments the lit signs that protrude from Acapulco Mexican Restaurant at 727 S. Polk St., Courtyard by Marriott at 724 S. Polk St. and High Plains Public Radio at 104 SW Sixth Ave. This fiscal year, facade grants have helped pay for the bright signs at Six Car Pub & Brewery and Crush Wine Bar & Deli, which share a new building at 625 S. Polk St.
“Neon lights - and now some are LED lights, not true neon - at the historic Santa Fe (Building) and the historic Paramount, it just enlivens the street," Duke said. "It makes it show that something’s happening.”
That's what Center City and the owners of the businesses that received $77,000 in facade grants for 2017-18 hope to accomplish.
In addition to Six Car Pub, which received $16,000 in grant money, and Crush, which got $7,000, Center City allocated $20,000 to the Levine's Building at 800 S. Polk St., $16,000 to what will eventually be a nano brewery at 501 S. Grant St., $10,000 to Tyler Street Apartments and $8,000 to the Junior League House at 1700 S. Polk St.
How it works
The way the facade grant program works is simple. Businesses within the Center City boundaries - the downtown area south and west of the railroad tracks, north of Interstate 40 and east of Washington/Adams street - can apply for as much as $20,000 per year.
"Money can only be used for the facade, exterior only," Duke said. "We categorize a facade as what you see from sidewalk level. We don’t like to do parking lots and roofs because our goal is to make downtown more beautiful, and it kind of boils down to curb appeal.”
The different projects can include everything from cleaning the stone exterior and fixing windows to improvements for streetscape and awnings.
“We have cleaned the stone on some of these great old buildings,” Duke said, "anything that makes the building more attractive.”
The City of Amarillo gives Center City $70,000 per year for the program. Center City can give it all to three and a half projects that year or it can spread it around as it sees fit. (The reason this year's allocation was $77,000 is because a $7,000 project approved in '16-17 was withdrawn and those funds were allowed to be spent in '17-18.)
The facade grant program has some safeguards for taxpayers and defenses against rogue business owners.
“Ours is a matching grant," Duke said. "So to get approved for the $20,000, you have to show us that you’re going to spend $40,000. If you get approved for $10,000, you’ve got to show us that you’re going to spend $20,000.
"It’s also a reimbursement grant, so they (businesses) don’t get any money until the project is done and they show us the receipts totaling twice what they want us to match. We think that’s good protection for taxpayer dollars because they (business owners) don’t get a cent until it is done. That protects people who start a project and are not able to finish it."
When the facade grant program first started it was a two-for-one match, meaning business owners would have to spend $30,000 to get $10,000 from Center City.
“I think the impact (of the facade grant program) is way more than $1 million because in the early days they had to spend two-thirds to get one-third," Duke said. “We changed it because that was when we were really trying to get some more momentum (for downtown), and we thought that would make the terms more favorable. Just kind of extra incentive."
Why it works
After business owners apply for the grant money, a volunteer, seven-member committee looks at all the applications and either approves the projects, rejects them or tweaks them.
“It’s very much a community process, and I think that’s one reason it’s worked so well because it’s really just a group of people trying to make downtown look better and be more welcoming,” Duke said.
Following initial approval, the application goes before the full 21-member Center City board for final approval.
This current fiscal year Center City had $70,000 worth of requests by November, Duke said.
“As downtown has gotten more popular and people see the difference it makes, more and more people are applying," she said. "We always try to use every cent that’s allocated because the need is so great and the demand is so great.”
The facade grants are also for residential properties, but with a restriction.
“One of the only things we say is projects should be income producing and not single-family residencies," Duke said.
That provision prevents people receiving facade grants to flip houses. Center City recently has helped with the Parkview Apartments at 1320 S. Fillmore St., Fillmore Lofts at 701 S. Pierce St., and the Lofts on 10th and The Firestone Apartments that are located across from each other at 10th and Tyler streets.
“If you look down Polk Street, Tyler, Taylor, these core streets and you see a building that looks appealing or looks better, chances are it’s a facade grant building," Duke said. "One great thing is that most of the improvements we’ve helped make on these buildings, even if the building has changed hands or sold, it’s still there. I just think this program saves buildings, one building at a time.”