July 14, 2004
Drink 'em if you got 'em

The main thought that occurs to me as I read this article about Conroe's attempts to bring a little life to its downtown now that an archaic anti-alcohol law has been lifted is that the Conroe Chamber of Commerce had better hope it's not too late for them. Here's their strategy:

The city's initial downtown redevelopment efforts in the 1990s amounted to not much more than a campaign to lure small retail investment to empty space on courthouse square.

"We'd get a few mom-and-pop shops, but they had a hard time and, being what they were, they had no staying power," recalled [Rodney Pool, architect of the May 15 referendum that by a 2-to-1 margin lifted long-standing restrictions on most liquor sales in the southern half of Conroe and the unincorporated areas of south Montgomery County]. "After a few months, maybe longer, they'd close up."

What's being sought now are entrepreneurs with deeper pockets hotel and restaurant chains, mainly with the financial base and marketing know-how to make a six- to seven-figure investment pay off. He said several such investments are in the offing, but he declined to identify them just yet.

Meanwhile, Pool has been recruiting a 10-member committee to shepherd the revitalization program for city council, which sees the effort as key to Conroe's strategy to attract corporate relocations to the area.

"Companies that might relocate here are going to look at our downtown to see what the health of the city is like. If it's vibrant and attractive, that's good," said Pool. "If it's not, it could be a problem."

See, the problem as I see it is that everything Conroe wants the Woodlands already has, and with its relentless northern expansion it's already pretty close by for Conroe residents. It's not inconceivable to me that any restaurant chain that might consider locating in downtown Conroe could wind up concluding that doing so would cannibalize an existing franchise's business a few miles south on I-45. Sure there's plenty of growth in Montgomery County, but I'm not sure there's enough in Conroe proper to support an Olive Garden or Bennigan's that isn't located right on the highway and probably wouldn't have much of a customer base outside of Conroe.

Now, I'm just supposing here, and I certainly could be underestimating the growth potential of that part of the county. I still wonder if enticing chain restaurants to an authentic small-town downtown is a good use of Conroe's assets. Unlike the Woodlands, which is an entirely aritificial creation, Conroe has a past to draw on. Its downtown has actual historic small-town charm. I don't understand the allure of turning it into a mini-version of the Woodlands' strip-center monolith, especially when the real thing is less than 15 minutes away. I'd think that if Conroe can make a go of it, a downtown Main Street of mom-and-pop shops would be a competitive advantage over its nearest neighbor, which doesn't have anything like it. I'd think long and hard about throwing that away.

Of course, they've already tried the mom-and-pop approach without much success so far. Maybe they need to give the smaller approach more time, maybe this is a sign that they've alread lost the economic battle to the Woodlands, I don't know. But I'd want to be really sure that the national chain approach is the best, if not only, option before I took it. There's no going back if it's wrong.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 14, 2004 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I don't know if you've seen plans for the new walk-up Market in The Woodlands... but the designs make it look like an old part of town that has been revitalized (at least that is how it looks to me).


If you don't have a historical area, make one... it is The Woodlands Way.

This post reminds me of my high school years, actually. While going to The Woodlands High School I dated, for a short time, a girl from Conroe High School (Tigers and Highlanders... oh the scandal).

How many times do you think we went to Conroe to hang out? I think two or three times, max.

Of course, when The Woodlands got old (after 17 years of age there is nothing to do in The Woodlands that is both fun and legal) we'd head down to Westheimer in Houston. Still that way now when I visit.

Posted by: Matt on July 14, 2004 11:29 AM

Conroe needs to figure out something that isn't available in the Woodlands. Or Spring. I used to work in Conroe, and I certainly didn't stay there after hours.

It's not going to be shopping, and "Olde Towne Springe" has the "Olde" market sewn up. Conroe already has Splashtown and Lake Conroe. Perhaps they need an aquatic theme for downtown. Can they turn the courthouse into Texas' Only Combination Courthouse/Aquarium?

Posted by: Michael on July 15, 2004 1:21 PM