Friday, February 20, 2009

Has Frisco Lost Its Mojo?

Flashback to 2004. The economy is chugging along. North Texas is thriving and little bitty Frisco is blooming into a regional economic powerhouse. Stonebriar Centre mall is the dynamo driving the growth, with additional outparcels filling as fast as they can be built. Target. Best Buy. TJ Maxx. And on the horizon, the Metroplex’s first IKEA. Companies were lining up to open their shops north of 121.

Jim Gandy, president of Frisco’s Economic Development Corporation, tells the story of how the developer of Stonebriar Centre, General Growth Properties, chose Frisco over our southern neighbor, Plano, as the site of their new shopping center. As the legend goes, the president of General Growth was driving up 121 with his wife and asked her which side of the street she preferred. Her choice – along with countless hours of negotiation – set in motion one of the most successful retail developments in the United States.

Now, five years later, the story has changed. Development around the mall has filled out, though there are a few pockets of new businesses here and there. Meanwhile, other parts of town have been slow to take off. The one area that was to be our crown jewel – Frisco Square and the area around Pizza Hut Park – has been a dud. Take a drive through the square on a weekend evening and you’ll find that foot traffic is pretty sparse. Even when there’s an event across the street, the fans generally clear out shortly after it ends.

Meanwhile, our neighbors haven’t been sitting still. Plano has developed the Shops at Legacy, attracting the kinds of retail, dining and entertainment that Frisco Square wishes it had. Further east, Watter’s Creek at Montgomery Farm in Allen has an innovative design that puts Frisco’s flat, vintage-1980 strip-mall aesthetic to shame. Just up the road, the Village at Fairview is set to open this summer, the first new mall to seriously challenge Stonebriar since it opened in 2000. (They even managed to slip in a Dog Park, something we’ve been struggling with for years.)

As far as being the place to go in North Texas, Frisco has definitely lost its mojo.

There are some signs that Frisco will right its slipping tiara. The new toll bridge across Lake Lewisville opens a path for a whole new set of shoppers to make it to IKEA. And the expansion of Deja Blue arena in the StarCenter will give us the premier mid-sized concert venue north of Dallas. But unless we put some creativity into leveraging these resources, neighboring cities will continue to siphon retail tax dollars away from us.

Don’t think it matters? Take a look at our city budget. Currently, we enjoy one of the lowest property tax rates in the area. You can thank Mrs. Stonebriar Mall for that. Over the years, we’ve been one of only three cities in Texas with a population under 100,000 to rank in the top 20 of sales tax revenue (Round Rock and Sugarland are the other two). We’ve now crested that population mark, and our per capita tax revenue is starting to slip. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll have to raise the property tax rate to offset the dwindling retail pool.

How can Frisco get its groove back? It’s going to take the same kind of forward thinking and creative financing that started things moving a decade ago. The national economic slowdown means we can’t count on growing our way to prosperity. We have to attract the businesses and build the kinds of shopping areas that will entice people to drive over the new bridge, or stick around town after the concert, or come early before the soccer game for dinner.

Thinking of running for one of the two city council seats this May? To get my vote, you’ll need to come up with some new ideas reignite Frisco’s mojo.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Biking Beavers Bend

Last Wednesday morning as I watched the ice accumulate on my back porch, I wondered if I was going to make my afternoon flight to Jacksonville. (I did.) On Sunday, I broke out the bike and went for a ride in shorts and a t-shirt. Welcome to winter in North Texas.

I’ve written before about some of the hike and bike trails being developed in Frisco. So as the day dawned bright, clear and warm, I decided to try out the latest: Beavers Bend Trail Extension. The first step was to find the place. Sadly, this proved more of a challenge than expected. I have the utmost respect for our Parks and Recreation department here in Frisco. But updating the city website is not one of their strong suits. The status of the Beavers Bend Trail Extension was listed as “Construction of this trail is scheduled to begin in 2007.” I found other references to projects that were slated to “be completed in 2008.” Meanwhile, the PDF map showing the various trails and parks in town was more confusing than helpful.

But ultimately, with the help of that old stand-by, Google Maps (the city GIS system was off-line), I found the trailhead off Legacy, just north of Lebanon. First of all, let me say that if you’ve got a young one who’s fondest desire is to poke around ponds looking for frogs; this is the place for you. Beavers Bend Park is basically a large wet-land area wrapped by a paved trail. Picnic tables poke out into the middle of the boggy area, providing easy access to budding herpetologists looking for the latest amphibious life forms.

The trail itself, however, left something to be desired. Unlike its counterparts, the Caddo and Taychus trails, Beaver Bend is pretty much devoid of any trees. While this made for a nice ride on a warm winter day, it left me exposed to gusting winds (we get those from time to time around here) and I can only imagine the temperature out there come summer time.

On the plus side, Beavers Bend is one of the first “connector” trails in town. On the eastern end, the plan calls for a connection to the future Grand Park through the corridor provided by Stewart Creek. On the western end, the trail already connects (almost) to our newest community park, BF Phillips. Ultimately, the master plan calls for the trail to continue down the creek, ultimately connecting with Lake Lewisville near the Colony. While that day may be years off, it’s nice to see some of the structure that will someday allow casual riders to cycle around town without risking life and limb in traffic, and actually getting some decent exercise along the way.

While I was pedaling around BF Phillips, I took the opportunity to wander through the space recently designated for an upcoming Dog Park. I must say it seems to be an ideal location. The nearest home was well out of barking range, and the terrain will lend itself to an interesting playground for all kinds of dogs and (lest we forget) their owners. Funding remains a steep obstacle to getting the park built, but I for one look forward to this addition to our diverse park system.

On a completely unrelated note, I made another discovery during my ride. Years ago, I abandoned the daily coffee-grind in favor of tea. One catalyst to the switch was visiting a tea shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown that opened my eyes to the amazing variety of flavors available. But here in North Texas, I haven’t been able to find a shop that carried any kind of selection. Enter the Halo Tea and Chocolate shop at the northwest corner of Lebanon and the Tollway. They’ve got a dandy selection of green teas (great antioxidants), blacks (more caffeine that coffee!) and even some white teas, all sold in loose leaf bins. I tried the Green Caribbean Breeze – a nice fruity blend – and was pleased that it wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet like most of those packets you find in the grocery stores. If your exposure is limited to Lipton tea bags, drop by Halo for a taste of what tea is really like.