Georgetown, Texas

Texas | 1997 Great American Main Street Award® Winner

Astride Interstate 35, the fastest growth corridor in the country, Georgetown is one of America's fastest growing municipalities. A historic gem, faceted by picturesque Victorian neighborhoods, Georgetown is the seat of Williamson County and home of Southwestern University. Established in the mid-19th century as a trading center, Georgetown became a staging area for the Chisholm Trail cattle drives of the 1880s. Today, the city remains a hub for Texas's most productive farm and technology centers. Three National Register districts host more than 180 historic businesses and homes and Georgetown's Main Street district is a singular point of Lone Star State pride.

In the 1970s, Georgetown's downtown was bleak and featureless. IIn an effort to modernize and compete with suburban retail development, building owners in the ‘50s and ‘60s obscured one of their most priceless resources – their retail buildings. The Texas-Victorian streetscape was plastered with stucco, aluminum covers, brick, and multiple layers of white paint. But community leaders had already begun taking interest and putting new stock back into their architectural heritage.

In 1982, Georgetown launched its Main Street program and adopted the four-point approach advocated by the National Trust Main Street Center. "This was the spark that came around that was just perfect," says Eugenia Harrell, a Georgetown resident and Main Street volunteer. "It takes more than one person, but with the Main Street program, all the mechanisms for success were in place."

Almost no one anticipated how rapidly a convergence of design, organization, promotion, and economic restructuring would yield such explosive change.

Georgetown's resurrected interest in its historic resources came at a time when the cost of borrowing money was soaring. Interest rates near 20 percent might have been a deterrent elsewhere. In Georgetown, every bank offered significantly lower interest loans for the renewal of the town's grand Victorian buildings and facades. And rehabilitation tax credit programs in the 1980s made investing in historic property an even more lucrative enterprise. By 1984, 40 rehabilitations were complete. A mere two years after its Main Street program was founded, more than half the Main Street district had undergone some kind of positive transition.

The town's public architecture also yielded treasure. In the late ‘80s, when many of America's exquisite county courthouses were falling into disuse or disrepair, Georgetown refurbished its courthouse as an emblematic centerpiece for downtown. 

Around the courthouse, government institutions were growing, and when they outgrew their historic quarters they moved to more appropriate premises in other historic buildings. The old downtown post office and the town's historic library now house city offices.  An antiquated power plant became the home of the police department. A historic bank building on the square was donated to the county historical commission for a museum. And significant retail space was renovated by the city to house government offices and a new convention and visitors bureau.

Building on architectural improvement, in 1987 town leaders conceived a unique public-private partnership to address a crumbling infrastructure. Building and business owners agreed to a limited ten-year special property-tax assessment to fund a sweeping streetscape overhaul, now complete. 

Into the rehabilitated downtown came a new wave of modern retailers. Restaurants helped turn the Main Street district into a 24-hour downtown. Old-style stores selling hardware, appliances, and auto parts are arrayed next to high-end specialty shops. Lawyers, insurance agents, title companies, and local newspapers share storefronts with a traditional family-owned department store, a coffee house, galleries, and gift stores. And second-floor apartments appeal to downtowners of all income levels.

Georgetown also prides itself on being a center for the modern cooperative store. Half a dozen retailers are sharing their large downtown spaces with smaller specialty merchants – supplying staff and display space while collecting rent and a share of the profits to help pay the larger note on some big retail spaces. Entrepreneurs like handicrafters and antique sellers are joining forces to keep larger Main Street parcels filled to maintain Georgetown's 100 percent occupancy rate.

"Building owners want to make a good return on their investments. We showed them it's not just about historic preservation. We could show a good return on investment," said Mayor Leo Wood.  "Some [business leaders] did it for the community. Others did it because they could make money."

More money is coming. Tourism is now the largest industry in the community. And Georgetown's new challenge is to stay abreast of spectacular change.  "Long-term management is just as crucial as creating new visions," Alexander says. 

Georgetown's growth, like its downtown success, is astonishing. Since 1990 the city's population has increased by 40 percent. By Southwestern University estimates, the population will soar from 22,000 to 61,000 by the year 2010. An expansive retirement community under development on Georgetown's fringes will be a solid contributor to that growth, promising to bring a $300 million infusion in retailing and services.

"Our sense of identity – the definable center of our city – is attracting all those elements that are making us grow so much," Harrell says, while acknowledging that such growth brings with it uncertainties about the future.  "I'd like to think that Georgetown was a well-kept secret. But I think the secret's out."

Georgetown, however, has paved the way for such dramatic progress with its Main Street program.  It laid a framework for economic strength. And it reinforced Georgetown's own dynamic sense of community.