Monday, February 19, 2018

South Longview residents hoping for action on I-20 plans

By Jimmy Daniell Isaac
Sept. 9, 2017 at 11:46 p.m.
Updated Sept. 10, 2017 at 4:09 p.m.

Dwayne Alexander, owner of Fat Boyzzz Restaurant in Longview, says he's struggling to succeed in spite of his restaurant's location amid high-traffic on Longview's south side. His restaurant sits on Interstate 20's frontage road — called North Access Road — near Estes Parkway, a southeast artery into Longview.

Dwayne Alexander says he's striving and struggling to succeed in spite of his restaurant's location amid high traffic on Longview's south side. His Fat Boyzzz Restaurant sits on Interstate 20's frontage road — called North Access Road — near Estes Parkway, a southeast artery into Longview.

In interviews in the days since fast-food giant Jack in the Box closed its nearby store, businesspeople are saying the intersection is a fault line of poor visibility and design, as well as neglect and crime.

"We need something that will attract and keep businesses on this side of town," Alexander said. "The north side, they've got all they need over there. If you would keep a lot of business on the south side of town, it would be a lot better."

He's not alone in that thinking. The interchange is one that was targeted for redesign in a so-called small area plan for redevelopment of the I-20 corridor. The goal would be to make it more appropriate for an urban area while increasing the amount of developable land.

City leaders have said they are interested in the idea. Alexander likes it, too.

It's unclear what role interchange design played in San Diego-based Jack in the Box's decision to close its store there. The company said it was closing the corporate-owned restaurant and others in the area because they were "underperforming locations."

Chris Aslam, a franchisee for more than 50 Jack in the Box restaurants, including several in the Longview area, said he couldn't speak on reasons for the corporate headquarters' decision. He said he had visited before with workers at the Access Road Jack in the Box who told him "high crime" was a concern, but he saw many other deterrents to growth and development.

Aslam, CEO of Rock Strategic Restaurant Group in Garland, said he noticed abandoned convenience stores at the corners with "people hanging out, trash on the ground and broken windows."

And he agreed with the small-area planners' conclusion that what hurts businesses is the interchange's design plus the canopy trees and shrubs meant to beautify the area.

Interchange design

The Interstate 20 interchange with Estes Parkway employs a half-cloverleaf design that allows for several acres of green space between the freeway, other roads and development. The space includes vegetation — some planted in the past year — plus grassy areas Aslam said should be mowed down because motorists exiting the highway can't see businesses or even other motorists.

"That tells a lot of the story … Exit access and visibility is weird," Aslam said. "I'm pretty sure they were planted there for aesthetics and beautification, but it kills."

Alexander agreed about the interchange's design, saying he's seen people camping overnight on the green space.

"I noticed the beautify and stuff like that," Alexander said, "but as times go and trees grow, it's going to darken the area, I think, as far as when you exit. It looks good, but when you exit off, it's going to be like a blind spot that you're not going to be able to see over there."

Earlier this year, consultants who helped craft the city's recently approved development plan for the I-20 corridor suggested the city work with state transportation engineers to redesign the interchange, possibly to a diamond-shaped design more commonly used in urban areas. The concept would reduce the acreage needed for the interchange, allowing for more development along Estes Parkway and Interstate 20 while also eliminating redundant freeway exit ramps.

'Would be great'

City leaders have said they are interested in the idea.

"I think that would be great," Alexander said, "because that's about two or three acres that could be used for something, more businesses."

Alexander lives in Gregg County north of Longview and drives south to his restaurant almost daily. When something at his restaurant needs to be fixed, replaced or replenished quickly, either he or an employee must drive back across Longview to retrieve that need — and hope they don't have to return.

He wants city leaders to spread Longview's development trend across more areas of town closer to his business.

"The north side is growing so fast that it's really killing the south side of town. If somebody would just spend the money and start something like Lowe's or Home Depot on this side of town, because if I need a doorknob or something, I have to drive clean across town to get it, and if it's wrong, I've got to drive back," Alexander said.

"We need something that will attract and keep businesses on this side of town," he added.

City Council talk

Developing the Interstate 20 corridor was a brief topic of discussion at the most recent Longview City Council meeting on Aug. 31. Kasha Williams, councilwoman for District 3, which includes Fat Boyzzz Restaurant, said she was disappointed the Longview Economic Development Corp.'s new $5.1 million budget included no dollars specifically for the I-20 corridor.

Corporation President and CEO Wayne Mansfield said the budget could be amended if directors find a project in which to proceed. Without offering details, he also suggested LEDCO might find resolution for its property at the northwest corner of the I-20/Estes Parkway interchange in the coming year. The property was a dilapidated former Holiday Inn hotel, meeting room and restaurant that LEDCO bought and demolished.

"That's a question that I know my constituents ask of me — how are those dollars allocated," Williams told Mansfield, "and the (property) acquisition piece, I would hope that we would continue that at some point."

City Manager David Willard has said administrators are looking into the idea of a tax-increment reinvestment zone that could be created to build a fund balance that pays for infrastructure needs along Interstate 20 and elsewhere in Longview. A tax-increment zone requires no tax rate increase, but no formal plan has been submitted to the City Council.

Remembering the past

Alexander remembers a different time on Estes Parkway when the Holiday Inn was open as were a number of restaurants. But despite increasing traffic counts over time, the area has lost zing.

"I think it was a lot better," he said.

Now, he has customers who tell him their friends are hesitant to come check out his lunch specials and down-home fare.

"Some of my … customers have told me, 'We would come over and eat but we're scared because of all of the crime rate over there,' " said Alexander.

"Interstate 20 has got, what, thousands of people traveling a day but where are they going when they stop to visit? They're going to the other side of town," he said. "It's a better side of town than this side."

Crime statistics requested of Longview Police Department were not readily available when the department closed Friday for the weekend. Sgt. Shane McCarter said the information could be available later this week.

"We're looking to grow back in Longview," Aslam said, expressing a desire to find locations to open more restaurants. He plans to revisit the city this month.

"If redevelopment does occur down there – exits get fixed and it gets cleaned up," he said of Estes Parkway, "I would be the first one down there."



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