Downtown development to brighten up the city

“The Parrot” mural, painted by local artist Ralph Stearns, is located on the Hall Building at the corner of Kell Boulevard and East Scott Avenue. Photo contributed by Jeanette Charos

As he sits behind his desk, he cannot help but speak with enthusiasm in his voice and a twinkle in his eye while he shares his vision for downtown Wichita Falls. He smiles as he communicates his ideas of buildings bathed in light, choreographed to the sounds of music as they dance along and dazzle up the cityscape. For visitors near or far, Stephen Santellana, Wichita Falls mayor, has plans to light up the downtown area of the city of Wichita Falls.

Like moths attracted to flames, he believes people will spend more time downtown, and he’s making it his mission as part of a revitalization effort to restore downtown and give it a fresh facelift to attract the community to the center of the city. Captivated by the charm of the old buildings with original fixtures, he likes the idea of adding modern touches while still keeping the exposed brick and concrete floors found in many old buildings. He also knows that there is a resurgence of people wanting to have a central common shopping area and the mall model is dying.

“There’s just a multitude of things that are going to be heading in our direction in the next six to 18 months. What we’re trying to do is accelerate that. We spent 16 years kind of developing downtown, we’re about to just light it on fire,” Santellana said. “It’s a revitalization and it’s key– people want it. I think some of the older folks here in town don’t understand it, but people want it. It’s the heart of your community.”

“That’s the one thing I was to stress, I think I need help from MSU on this.  You can put my contact information out there, you can put it in the story. It’s public. You could have an MSU downtown committee, students that have some ideas and are willing to help.”

While downtown development has been in the works for more than a decade, it’s hasn’t gone this quickly before and Santellana plans to make good use of the time he has as mayor over the next two years, because he is determined to strike while the iron is hot.

“We’re trying to light the place up. I’ve got some renderings of some buildings, but literally when I say lighting up, we’re talking about lighting the buildings from the bottom all the way to the top, 100 percent,” Santellana said. “When I say lit up, I’m talking about completely up the sides of the buildings, the tops of the buildings; it’ll look like a glowing green structure or a glowing pink structure.”

Students took to Twitter to share their interest in downtown development.

While Santellana wants to see the city cloaked in color, both Santellana and Suzanne Shipley, university president, have a vision for downtown Wichita Falls that invites students to become more of a part of the community.

Q: What ideas do you have for downtown development that would interest MSU students?

A: Stephen Santellana, Wichita Falls mayor: Right now we’re looking at having some student housing downtown. It would be located right above The Highlander. We’re trying to get with Will Kelty and Claro Villanueva and they have those units above Crescent Plaza hotel. If they can get 100 to 150 students down there, I think it’s going to help in those endeavors for the downtown development.  Maybe also a dedicated bus line. Maybe MSU, some way to get the students back and forth.We’re also looking right now we’ve got The Yard that’s opened back up, The Highlander just opened, Odd Duck Coffee just opened, we’ve got a pizza and craft beer place fixing to open, then we have a brewery fixing to open. These are all with the mindset of having the millennials come down there, and the MSU students.

A: Suzanne Shipley, university president: Artistic and entertainment venues are good but especially if the downtown could become a vibrant work destination for students who could also reside there it would enliven not only the town but the university.  New employment options would also be wonderful to keep our graduates in town.

There is both work and play involved in Santellana and Shipley’s ideas for downtown development and they each have their own personal views of what would attract students downtown.

Q: What would you personally like to see that would attract students to spend time downtown and bring students to Midwestern State?

A: Santellana: You know, a guy came to me yesterday. We’ve got bars, we’ve got a pizza place coming, but a guy wanted a five to ten lane bowling alley in one of the old warehouses.  Keep the old warehouse, put the new bowling alley in the middle and really nice bars on the side. Big sports TVs, a couple lounge areas. He had a pretty good vision and the whole building is gigantic. He said ‘I could put ten lanes here, and really nice roller bars, and a really nice porch.’ So that’s one thing.

A: Shipley: I think it’s up to the students to decide what they want and us to try to assist.  I would hope it’s not all about bars but about fun and safe options for everyone.

Students shared their own ideas for what would make downtown more attractive.

Santellana and Shipley are working together with city officials to make a collaborative effort to raise more awareness of MSU and celebrate its importance to the town.

“A small leadership group meets each month to discuss ideas and consider their implementation.  We are creating banners now with the MSU logo on them to place downtown to heighten awareness that we are a college town,” Shipley said. “Businesses have also implemented wearing maroon and gold on Fridays to support us, which can assist students who graduate from MSU in being accepted as future employees.”

Mayor Santellana is also supportive of displaying the colors maroon and gold for university awareness.

“The way that relates to MSU is I want when they’re either winning a football or basketball game, those buildings are lit up in maroon and gold,” Santellana said. “We’re trying to hopefully do that. We’re going to start placing some flags around campus and maybe some flags downtown, make it a little more MSU friendly.”

While downtown development would be new for all residents of Wichita Falls, Shipley believes students could have a successful future here, aside from attendance at the university.

“It is important that students are able to access all the options Wichita Falls can give them.  It’s great if students who are residential or international are able to spend weekends here rather than returning home.  It creates a better connection to this area for them,” Shipley said. “For students who live off campus, having appealing things to do in town can keep them living and working here after graduation as well as helping us retain them as students.”

Shipley said she wants students to know that as awareness of the university increases in the city and surrounding areas, so does the opportunities available to students.

“The more aware an area is of the university’s reputation, the more value your degree has for you.  It is important to spread the word inside and outside of Wichita Falls that MSU offers a high-quality degree so that graduates will be seen as attractive to employers and further educational opportunities,” Shipley said.

Santellana shares that progress is being made in downtown development and there is a team working together to achieve much more for the city and students.

“I think right now, our focus, is to get these millennials down there. When I spoke to a small group, 90 percent of them raised their hands that they wanted downtown development to happen. I thought jobs was going to be the primary focus and jobs came secondary. They wanted a cool place to live, and then they’ll find a job,” Santellana said. “We have a strategic plan with the city staff and with city council and downtown development came out as our number one priority for the city of Wichita Falls in the coming years.”

Santellana also made it clear that he wants students to know their input is valuable and needed as plans continue to be made.

“It seems more than anywhere, my inspiration base comes from MSU. I really want MSU students to help me develop these ideas. I don’t know how I can reach out to them, but I know that every time I talk to them, everybody is so fired up about downtown, Santellana said. “I was like you know what, there’s 6,000 of you kids running around here. A handful of the best of the best, whoever has interest, I need some help down there so when I sit down with a committee full of city leaders, I have a handful of MSU students saying ‘yes, this is what we want.’”