ENNIS — When a tornado struck the city of Ennis in 2013, its downtown sustained a massive blow — both financially and culturally. In fact, some residents thought that its history might be permanently lost.

However, residents, community leaders, and city officials are working to preserve that history and build a brighter future for the city with the downtown revitalization project that is underway.

“The tornado significantly damaged five of our most historic downtown buildings. They were literally under threat of demolition. So a group of citizens organized themselves and said, ‘You know what, we are not going to let this happen.’ They petitioned our city commission and a grant program was created to try and preserve and restore our downtown buildings,” Ennis Development Coordinator Marty Nelson said. “That program was so successful that now it has led to the next step, which is an infrastructure investment and the creation of a downtown master plan. When you get to a downtown master plan, it is going to create a lot of projects. At the end of the day, you are going to have projects that are going to cost a lot more than any one source of funding can provide.”

ESTABLISHMENT OF TIRZ

Nelson said some different revenue sources have been developed over the past few years to make this master plan successful, which include the City of Ennis and the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC). To have long-term financing to revitalize downtown, a tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) was established.

“Tax increment financing (TIF) works off of the new value of the zone. When you establish a TIRZ, it has a baseline value and, for our TIRZ, that value is about $66.5 million. So as investment goes into the downtown and into the TIRZ the property value begins to appreciate,” Nelson said. “As the property values appreciate that begins to generate more property tax revenue.”

Nelson said the City of Ennis agreed to establish a TIRZ. Under the agreement, 25 percent of new property tax value will go into the city’s general fund and the remaining 75 percent will go into the TIRZ fund. The Ellis County Commissioners Court at its Dec. 20 meeting also approved this same 30-year agreement.

Nelson said the Downtown TIRZ covers an eight-block area of the historic downtown that totals 297 acres of property. A second TIRZ will be established around the Interstate Highway 45 area.

The City of Waxahachie has seen success through its TIRZ. Some of the projects they have been able to complete were the restoration of the MKT train depot on Rogers Street, new street lighting, landscaping features and the purchase of the Texas Theater to preserve it as a downtown entertainment venue.

PROJECTS TO BE FUNDED

One of the first projects that will be undertaken by the city is the replacement of infrastructure — water and sewer lines — in downtown. The existing water and sewer lines are more than 100 years old and constructed of cast iron or clay.

“All of the projects are evaluated on an objective scale. I think there were 30-some projects and 13 evaluation criteria. So projects could score between a zero and a 13. The most important project is the downtown infrastructure,” Nelson said. “Over the years, the capacity in the water lines and sewer lines degrades. Over time a water line that used to have a 100 percent capacity now has 20 percent. So you now have 20 percent of the capacity left to support all of what is going on in downtown.”

Nelson said the infrastructure projects are geared to start in 2017, and the City of Ennis is contributing $7.5 million to the project. It will include the replacement of alleyways and the infrastructure in downtown and along Dallas Street, as well.

DOWNTOWN TRAIN BRIDGE

To help connect visitors and residents to the downtown of Ennis to the I-45 business corridor, an underpass could be installed to elevate the existing railroad tracks.

“Part of this revitalization is getting someone from I-45 to come into the downtown. In our case it is somewhat unique for us is that we have this railroad crossing that creates this physical barrier,” Nelson said.

Ennis Main Street Coordinator Becky McCarty shared Nelson’s thoughts about how this new bridge will improve connectivity between the two points in the city.

“When you go to downtown or go to the Walmart or when anybody is exiting off of I-45 you get on Ennis Avenue when you get the to Kaufman Street there is not anything there visually, or there is a train. There is nothing to pull you in,” McCarty said. “If there is a train every resident in Ennis is going to turn right or left. They are going to go left so they can go under the under pass and completely bypass downtown Ennis or are going to right and go where ever they need to go so they can cross. Downtown has become a pass through. So that is one of the big things. Even being here at the visitor’s bureau they get to Kaufman Street, and they say there is nothing else here. They turn around and go back the highway.”

Nelson added that the new bridge would not only improve safety and connect both areas of the city, but it will serve as a giant billboard and a gateway into downtown. The bridge will feature the city name prominently on the top of it. The city has sent out a request for quotes with hopes of landing an engineering firm that can do this type of construction for the bridge project.

OTHER PROJECTS

Work has already started on Minnie McDowal Park that is located at the intersection of Dallas and Knox Streets, as the property was previously purchased for a new welcome center in downtown. This new building is looking to house the convention and visitor’s bureau, the economic development team, the building inspections team and possibly the chamber of commerce.

“We recently took a road trip to Rockwall and they went through an entire downtown infrastructure upgrade. They updated all of their streets, sidewalks, access to all of their buildings and we talked to them about how businesses survived,” McCarty said. “We are trying to work with our partners that are doing the infrastructure. One of the marketing campaigns that we have going on is called ‘Here we Grow.’ Yes, all of our businesses are open but pardon our dust. We have got stuff going on, so come and check it out.”

— Follow Andrew on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AndrewBrancaWDL or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AndrewBrancaWNI. Contact him at abranca@waxahachietx.com or 469-517-1451.