Texas | 1999 Great American Main Street Award® Winner | Posted: 10/16/2008
Despite its proximity to a major metropolitan area, Denton, Tex., (pop. 72,000) remains fiercely independent from its neighbors to the south — Dallas and Fort Worth. The city has created its own identity and secured a permanent place in the tourism annals of northern Texas.
The most important influence on Denton’s growth has been its two higher education facilities, the University of North Texas (UNT) and Texas Woman’s University. Denton may be best known as a mecca for jazz musicians who flock to UNT to study this all-American brand of music. But, the town is also becoming increasingly well known for the revival of its vibrant downtown area.
Founded in 1856, Denton originally consisted of 33 blocks with a public square. As the county seat, Denton thrived; the square bustled with activity on Saturdays when farmers and townsfolk gathered to trade and catch up on the latest news. Downtown remained the shopping hub for many generations.
In the 1980s, suburban sprawl started to take its toll, and downtown Denton began to feel the squeeze of modernity. Store owners tried to lure tenants and shoppers by covering brick facades with metal and stucco to imitate the “new look” of malls and shopping strips. As one downtown employee recalls, “I was working on the square during its last hurrah of the late ‘70s when you could do all of your Christmas shopping by walking around the square during lunch. I was also there in the mid-’80s when there was no place to even buy a greeting card.”
In 1986, the community mounted a public campaign to restore the Courthouse on the Square. A $3.5-million restoration of the 1896 Romanesque courthouse was the catalyst for the current revitalization efforts. Since the courthouse restoration, utility lines have been buried, with the curbs reconfigured to include corner extensions and ramps. In the process, an additional 60 parking spaces, external lighting on buildings and in trees, and new traffic signals were added.
Denton also raised $1.7 million to renovate downtown’s Campus Theater and it has been worth every penny. A movie house for nearly 40 years, the theater closed its doors in 1986; a decade later, it re-opened as a live theater. Despite the changes, the theater has maintained the look and style of its heyday; it hosts approximately 54 productions and events annually and has spurred redevelopment in the surrounding area. Today, the Campus Theater anchors a growing arts and entertainment district.
Private investment in downtown has swelled to more than $18 million since 1989. There has been a net gain of 138 new businesses and more than 600 new jobs. The occupancy rate has risen from 70 to 98 percent in the last nine years, and 26 loft apartments have been created in the upper floors around the square.
Throughout the downtown area, boarded-up buildings have taken on new life as revitalization spreads outward from Courthouse Square. Special events downtown attract tens of thousands of visitors each year, adding to the vibrancy and vitality of Denton’s small-town atmosphere. Now a destination, Denton thrives on its reputation as a mecca for music, shopping, history, education, and cultural opportunities.