Kilgore's shining star
By Amanda Retallack
March 18, 2010 at 9:04 a.m.
Main Street Manager changes the face of downtown
Fallon Burns looks out over the World's Richest Acre discussing her plans for revitalizing downtown Kilgore's once-bustling streets. Her eyes sparkle as bright as the stars that cap the forest of oil derricks concentrated on a 1.2-acre site in the heart of the city. The enthusiasm - and urgency - in her voice is palpable.
"I came here to make something happen," said the main street manager as she looked past the derricks to the quiet streets. "The community members are all ready to put Kilgore back on the map. With Kilgore's quality businesses and its rich history, this place is just waiting to explode, and it will."
<strong>Dreams and derricks</strong>
As we walk the blocks of downtown, Fallon's work - and that of the Main Street Advisory Committee - is evident. The pavement is crackless, there are fresh shrubs on the sidewalks, building façades appear immaculate. She's done a lot in just three years.
Fallon took her seat on the Advisory Committee in 2007. The 24-year-old was the perfect pick: headstrong and determined, eager and ambitious. She had high hopes for her adopted home in the City of Stars.
"I'm a Texas transplant, born and raised in Louisiana - Natchitoches, actually," she said. "I worked at the Convention and Visitor's Bureau and, I'm telling you, it was great experience but not challenging. Have you ever seen 'Steel Magnolias'? I mean, the place is perfect, so I never had to try to draw anyone to us."
It just so happened that Natchitoches and Kilgore are on the Holiday Trail of Lights. Through board meetings, Fallon met Kilgore's Chamber of Commerce president. He was so taken by her drive and enthusiasm that when the main street manager position became vacant, Fallon was the first person to pop into his mind for the role. As Fallon recalled, her stars aligned.
"I was pumped!" Fallon said. "I came here the day of the interview having never stepped foot on Kilgore soil. As soon as I saw the derricks, I thought, 'This place is a gold mine for the tourism world.' Think about it: Every town has cute shops, a theater, a museum ... there has to be something to set a place apart from others. Derricks!" She pointed back toward the World's Richest Acre with conviction and pride. "We've got derricks!"
We step into the first of several boutiques during our tour of the renovated downtown. Like proud parents whose daughter just took hold of her college diploma, the merchants' eyes light up to see Fallon walk through the door. They openly praise her downtown deeds as she modestly insists, "It wasn't all me ... I couldn't have done anything without y'all."
She admits that the first two weeks on the job were a bit stressful. Fallon saw so much potential for the quiet little hub - but people wondered how this young outsider could affect change from the inside.
"I was 24, and everyone's looking at me like, 'My grandkids are older than you ... what can YOU possibly do?' People and merchants who I call friends now were, at the time, skeptical. They commented that I was awfully young for the position," she said. "I'd just smile at them and say, 'I'm getting older by the minute.' "
Her tenacity was obvious. In the beginning, she got used to her new office not by hanging pictures, but by taking to the streets where she asked anyone she could - from merchants to Main Street shoppers - one simple question: What do you want in your downtown? That question sparked a wave of feedback, and Fallon took copious notes.
After her trek around town, the Main Street Advisory Committee held a public forum where almost 70 residents brought their cares and concerns.
"One thing that was really overwhelming when I got (to Kilgore) was that the men and women who live here don't just love this city; they LOVE this city," Fallon emphasized. "Everyone has the memories of what it was like in the '40s, '50s and '60s - it was very high-end, upscale and 'the' place to be. These residents and merchants were hungry to bring that Kilgore back."
<strong>A domino effect</strong>
Fallon and committee devised an ambitious plan to bring entertainment, businesses and a sense of pride to the city, starting with the one thing that everyone had on their minds: curb appeal.
"The sidewalks were broken and ugly. When you looked downtown, you didn't get a warm, gooey feeling ... you saw asphalt and cracked concrete," Fallon recalled as she crinkled her nose. "There was no greenery, no charm."
With that, the façade improvement grant program began. The City Council gave Fallon $10,000 to allot to any local businesses who were eager to spruce up their outside space.
"It was a first come, first serve deal," Fallon said. "We encouraged it, we needed people to come take our money, and they did!"
Within the first month, Fallon and committee had given out all their funds, only to go back to the Council asking for more funds. The board happily gave her $40,000 more and, by the end of the first year, seven properties were granted funds to fix up their establishments.
"It was incredible to see how the domino effect can work," she said. "One person does something and then their neighbors are like, 'Oh, that's pretty' and they do something, and then their neighbor does something ... It was just remarkable to see the change of our streetscape."
<strong>Business is booming</strong>
Similar to a world-class juggler, Fallon has many balls in the air at once. As she looks on with pride at the Main Street block that has seen façade and sidewalk improvements, she smiles with the knowledge that there's more work to be done.
"Next on the list is the Citizen's Bank blocks, then the Char Burger block, then the Crim Theater block ... this place will look amazing," she said.
The Main Street Advisory Committee envisions downtown as an inviting shopping, dining, meeting and entertainment destination that offers a sense of history and a window to tomorrow's economy.
"With a prettier downtown, we'll be able to draw in more crowds and more business," Fallon said.
Kilgore now hosts downtown events such as a farmer's market at World's Richest Acre every Saturday from June to October, Christmas business and loft tours, Trick-Or-Treating on Halloween and a monthly event called Friday After 5, which is an outdoor concert under the derricks.
"It's all coming together beautifully," Fallon said. "We've done so much already, but with all the positive energy and backing from this great community, I feel like we're just getting started."