City leaders hope to tip the scales of downtown development with a focused growth program

The four governments of Dodge City will be considering a new vision for downtown and the city's central thoroughfare through a new economic incentives package that is hoped to bring life back to the city center.  

The proposed incentives plan would offer 100 percent incremental property tax rebates to businesses inside the downtown historic district for 10 years. Businesses along the Wyatt Earp Boulevard gateway district, labeled the "heritage district" in the proposal, would be eligible for a 100 percent rebate the first year that decreases 10 percent per year for a decade.

Combined with the availability of sales tax-capturing STAR bonds in the same areas, the new incentives could greatly reduce the cost of rehabilitating a portion of the city that was once its vibrant center.

Each of the four Dodge City taxing districts — the city, county, college and schools — are expected to vote on the issue at a quad-government meeting on May 29 at the Learning Center at 6 p.m. The last time the four governments met they approved a similar incentives program for residential properties south of Comanche Street, including the downtown row buildings that could contain second-floor apartments or condominiums.

In addition to the tax incentive program, a group of investors, business owners and government leaders have come together to convert East Wyatt Earp Boulevard into a gateway into the city with consistent landscaping, decorating light posts and a slew of new commercial development.

This gateway district would also include S. Second Avenue to the river and an area west to 11th Avenue.

That is, including and around Wright Park where the "Why Not Dodge?" water park has been approved to be built and where the Leisure Group hoteliers are planning to build a new hotel.

The 'core' focus

"Municipalities, schools, colleges, counties — they understand you have to save the core," City Manager Cherise Tieben said, and the core of Dodge City with its old buildings and difficult infrastructure has turned away potential investors toward the town's periphery.

Building new has fewer surprises than rehabilitating old, she said. It also draws people outside the center of the city.

"I think it'll encourage people to look again downtown," Tieben said.

Investors who buy into the vision of a rebirth downtown could purchase buildings cheap, improve them and be refunded the difference on their property tax liability.

This fact is well known to Lily and Michael Zuniga, owners of a pawn shop and fitness studio on N. Second Avenue. The Zunigas purchased and are renovating a second building and are putting new commercial tenants in place, including an art and portrait photographer opening for business soon. They also have an eye on a third building in the district.

Lily Zuniga ran for City Commission on a platform of downtown revitalization and were frustrated with what they perceived as a disincentive to invest in area after being hit with large jumps in property taxes.

They said they have tried to lead by example, Michael Zuniga said. At a recent Final Friday gathering at the Art Guild, the couple was praised by attendees for their work in beautifying the city.

"It'll be really positive for the downtown area and I hope property owners know what a good thing they are getting," Michael Zuniga said.

The Zunigas have been working with Mainstreet, an organization focused on downtown renewal, though one with a limited budget.

"The question was, 'What can we do to motivate property owners to fix up their buildings?'" Michael Zuniga said.

Tax incentives were seen as a low-cost approach compared to direct payments and the limited pool of low-cost revolving loans. Property tax incentives in combination with state infrastructure-funding sales tax diversions could create a significant reduction in the cost to build in Dodge City.

That development would then give residents and visitors a reason to return downtown, Michael Zuniga said.

"It's something we have to create little by little."

The incentive era

Businesses expect a full slate of economic incentives to mitigate some of the risk of investment, Brian Marshall of Building Solutions said. If one city isn't offering them, another is.

For years he has attempted to recruit commercial interests into the Santa Fe Plaza, potentially a row of commercial properties, though now an empty lot with a sign on the south side of Wyatt Earp Boulevard.

"It's kind of an ongoing deal. I've probably had six or seven businesses in the last six months inquiring about them," Marshall said. Invariably, interest wanes. Incentives "would help out a bunch. That's what would make us competitive with Garden City."

The incentives package proposed here, in combination with existing programs, would be similar to those offered in Garden City, Marshall said.

"That's needed to happen for a long time. If we want those kinds of retailers and businesses in Dodge we're going to have to give them something to make it worth their while to come here." Currently, "It just makes dollars and cents to go to Garden."

Early successes will draw more interest, Marshall said. Having a district primed for growth could lead to following investors seeing Dodge City as a safe bet.

"Retail follows retail," he said, "and we are very underserved and underbuilt in retail."

There's a real sense that Dodge City is on a tipping point with retail, hospitality and other quality-of-life businesses with the city's strong industrial base as a fulcrum, Marshall said.

It makes economic sense for the city, too, Marshall said, as new commercial development will generate sales tax and the city can't collect tax revenue on buildings that aren't being built.

The outline for the new property tax rebate districts was based on the existing STAR bonds districts, a program that diverts a portion of the state's sales tax to pay for infrastructure costs like roads, water and sanitary sewer.

The outline has been expanded following input from developers and investors around the city through the work of the Ford County and Dodge City Development Corporation, and the city hopes to expand the STAR bonds district to fit this new blueprint for urban revitalization.

Developing downtown can be difficult, Tieben said. "I think it'll encourage people to look again downtown."

Tieben advocates for "smart growth." Dodge City has a strong industrial base that has been growing in employment by about 2.5 times faster than Garden City.

It's generally cheaper to develop outside the city center, but it can also create tree-like rings, the middle becoming old and unused until it rots and kills the organism.

Instead, with a new gateway and a refreshed downtown, visitors and residents will "know you're in the historical district and it's a special place," Tieben said.

The outline for the incentives district was also expanded by the request of the County Commission who hopes to create a public and private health campus anchored by the renovated county jail — the new county health department — on Avenue L and Military Avenue.

The county hired a consultant who specializes in health care recruitment. The strength of the incentives and the potential for an aesthetically coherent gateway district has drawn significant interest, County Chairman Chris Boys said.

Through that project the county sees a strong potential to set the tone for east Dodge City revitalization.

Informed by New Urbanism

The ultimate goal is to make downtown Dodge City and areas surrounding it as the go-to place, Tieben said. "Walkability," a term describing the ability to explore an area without having to get back in the car, is the goal.

Events like Final Friday are helping, she said. "It's becoming a place to go again. It lost that for a while."

New Urbanism is a community-planning concept that attempts to recreate some of the compact neighborhoods of the past and seeks to tame urban sprawl, that natural tendency to move further and further away from the city center.

Along with the incentive program is the idea for a walking trail that would go from Boot Hill connecting to the sidewalks of downtown, along the gateway district and south along Second Avenue, Tieben said.

The city is exploring ways to make Dodge City as walkable as possible and minimizing the barrier the railroad tracks represent.

She thinks it will also help attract young people who yearn for close-knit, diverse urban neighborhoods with people coming and going, vibrancy and a selection of corner stores and eateries.

The Zunigas eventually plan to add apartments above their properties. They also want to start hosting regular get-into-Dodge days downtown. The first will be on June 8 and they hope to have food vendors, games and vendors selling goods.

Dodge City Days is a good example, they said, but regular events could get people downtown regularly.

They're heavily invested in Dodge City and expanding, they said. They're betting on downtown.