Home » Blog » Looking for an Economic Rebound, an East Texas Town Looks to the Arts — and is Rebuffed by the State
Economy News Texas United States

Looking for an Economic Rebound, an East Texas Town Looks to the Arts — and is Rebuffed by the State

LUFKIN — When Sally Alvis learned about Texas’ cultural districts program, she knew she wanted the designation for this East Texas town.

Created by state lawmakers in 2005, the cultural districts program helps cities promote their arts, especially to tourists, and in turn stimulates economic development. The designation opens up hundreds of thousands of grant dollars and ideally drives up sales tax revenue, property appraisals and foot traffic.

For Lufkin, a former industrial town seeking to rebuild itself in a new era of technology, Alvis hoped the designation could help revitalize downtown and lure new businesses.

After years of effort, Alvis learned last month that the Texas Commision on the Arts rejected Lufkin’s application.

“We knew it was a long shot,” Alvis said. “We were realists, and we knew that there were some deficits that we weren’t going to be able to offer solutions for.”

The effort and disappointment is proof of the uphill climb Lufkin faces as it seeks to remain competitive in a fast-growing state.

The town of 34,000 people sits deep in the Piney Woods, a region dotted with rural towns that often lack access to health care and job opportunities. Lufkin is the heart of East Texas, where life centers around the local school district and church.

Lufkin’s population has been stagnant for years, even though it is the largest city within an 80 mile radius and a hub for health care and retail. Many of the surrounding East Texas counties are losing population, based on Census estimates, and ambitious students from the rural Piney Woods say they want to move to metro areas like Dallas, Austin or Houston, which offer greater opportunities for job growth and more entertainment options.

Alvis and Becca Chance, both of whom previously chaired the Angelina Arts Alliance, have worked tirelessly since 2019 in hopes of achieving the designation, in part to help the town become more attractive to young people. The duo created Lufkin Creative, a nonprofit entity that would oversee the cultural district, and they recruited more than 75 volunteers to help them put together a proposal to submit to the Texas Commission on the Arts. The final application was 149 pages long along with a five-minute video.

Lufkin’s application received a score of 818, Alvis said. The two successful applicants this year, Granbury and Garland, scored between 850 and 870. Alvis declined to share the written feedback Lufkin received on its application but said evaluators praised their submission and encouraged them to try again. Alvis noted that evaluators encouraged them to develop a “maker space” downtown. Such a space would offer artists a place to create, show and sell their work.

Lufkin’s future hinges on whether it can attract employers and retain a strong workforce. But addressing that challenge is a catch-22. To attract new businesses, the town needs entertainment options that support a high quality of life — things that a cultural district could help with. To justify the cost of building those assets, they need a substantial population.

“We’re going to take some risks on spending a little money to do things for the community,” said Lufkin Mayor Mark Hicks. “If you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to find a way for us to do it.”

Lufkin was founded in 1882 as a railroad town. A timber boom in the late 19th century produced hundreds of sawmills and led to a “golden era of expansion” during the pre-World War II era. Industrial expansion created jobs, and the town’s proximity to Sam Rayburn Reservoir and hunting lands made it a popular tourist destination.

A combination of factors over the past several decades have placed new challenges on Lufkin. The collapse of the oil industry during the 1980s caused job cuts and economic stagnation. A rapid decline in demand for newsprint caused the paper mill, which employed hundreds of residents across multiple generations, to shut down in 2003. That same year, General Electric purchased Lufkin Industries, a leading provider of technology for the oil and gas sector and one of the town’s largest employers. The takeover came with job cuts and, in 2015, the corporation’s decision to close down a large segment of the company – the iron foundry. A subsequent restructuring led to further job loss.

That decline was visible in Lufkin’s once-bustling downtown. By 1990, dilapidated and vacant buildings lined a quiet downtown street. The Pines Theater — at one time a fixture and center of entertainment — sat empty, its roof leaking and walls caved inward. The local arts scene was all but nonexistent.

“People felt like if they were going to find art, they’d go to Houston or New Orleans or Santa Fe,” said Adell Becker, a former public school teacher turned full-time artist. “There was just nothing happening here.”

Over the past two decades, though, Becker and her husband Charlie have watched locally-owned boutiques and restaurants sprout up, slowly offering glimmers of a revitalized downtown.

In 2007, the same year the Beckers opened an art studio downtown, the city purchased the Pines Theater and invested millions to refurbish it. Then, Hicks became mayor in 2021 and turned his focus toward downtown. A real estate developer who owns several downtown buildings, Hicks has refurbished several old buildings, including the Angelina Hotel, which now houses restaurants and boutiques on the ground floor and lofts on the upper floors.

“When Hicks started buying up property, that’s when the real renaissance began,” Becker said.

That Hicks owns a large portion of downtown does not seem to have struck residents as a conflict of interest. Often, Hicks recuses himself from city council votes pertaining to rezoning his properties.

Adding to Lufkin’s recent growth has been Bob Samford, the city’s director of economic development. He successfully pushed for Lufkin to become a foreign trade zone in 2019, a designation that allows businesses to avoid federal import and export taxes on products. That has helped lure new companies, including a new manufacturing site for French company Gattefossé and a $150 million pulp mill project from Jefferson Enterprise.

In Samford’s eyes, Lufkin is on the path to success.

“We are playing with the big leagues,” Samford said to the Lufkin school board during a recent work session, when he asked for the board’s support in allowing a new company to operate within Lufkin’s foreign trade zone. “We are going to see growth in Lufkin, Texas.”

Applying for the cultural district designation was another piece of the puzzle of Lufkin’s growth.

Research from the Texas Cultural Trust has found that towns with the cultural district designation experience significant economic growth by increasing sales tax revenue, raising appraised property taxes and driving population growth. For example, Winnsboro, which was designated as a cultural arts district in 2021, has received $199,000 in cultural district grant funding. And both sales tax and property tax collections have risen by more than 20%.

State lawmakers created the cultural district program to help communities promote their cultural and artistic assets. The program initially had no funding attached to it and simply gave the Texas Commission on the Arts the authority to establish criteria to designate the districts. The legislature began awarding dollars to support the program in 2016.

This year, lawmakers awarded an additional $5 million to the program over the next two years, upping the total amount of funding to $7.5 million a year. The commission has so far designated 54 cultural districts.

In Longview, which sits about 90 miles north of Lufkin and is the closest cultural district to Lufkin, the town has seen more than 25 new locally-owned businesses open up since the town received its designation in 2019, according to Christina Cavazos, executive director of Longview Arts, the entity that operates the cultural district.

“There are many people who want to open a business downtown but we are out of space in our main street district,” Cavazos said. “It’s a great problem to have.”

It’s a problem that Lufkin residents hope to have soon. Alvis said it’ll be the Board of Lufkin Creative that decides whether Lufkin reapplies for the cultural district program but she and her team will nonetheless move forward in developing the town’s arts.

“The designation would have been a dream come true,” Alvis said. “But it is not in any way thwarting us. We are operating as a cultural arts district in downtown Lufkin.”

Source : TheTexasTribune