By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
BELTON — Decades ago, wagons hauling cotton from fields across Texas waited in lines to have their loads weighed at the cotton gin downtown.
Today, the same area has diners waiting in line to eat at The Gin at Nolan Creek, a steakhouse restaurant located in one of the city’s emerging commercial districts.
The Gin, a retail-shopping complex, situated on a picturesque stretch of Nolan Creek, is primed to become one of the city’s most promising commercial spots after a long history of economic changes.
In 1928, the Farmer’s Gin Co-Op Company built a massive cotton gin along the creek banks, but the effects of the Great Depression, including plummeting cotton prices, caused the building to close.
After a resurgence in the 1940s, the building was converted to a feed store in 1950. Developer Robert Dominguez bought the property at an auction in 2004 and created The Gin, which has six businesses, including two restaurants.
At the time, Dominguez paid $267,000 for the property. Now, he estimates the 2 acres along the creek are worth about $3 million.
Dominguez said the biggest challenge with the property was finding a way to reinvigorate the downtown Belton community, and convincing area shoppers that the creek-side development had as much to offer as similar areas in Austin or San Marcos.
“That’s really been the toughest challenge — getting people to realize they can stay here and shop,” he said. “When we hear from shoppers that they feel like they’re in Austin, that’s a real compliment.”
One of the newest additions is the steakhouse that opened in September.
“We get a lot of people who are working downtown,” said Evan Morrison, the steakhouse’s assistant manager. “We also see people from Temple who are working at Scott & White (Hospital).”
The restaurant also gets business from the military and retirees.
One restaurant goal was to create a modern-day dining experience while preserving the historical integrity of the original building. The dining area once housed the massive machinery that processed cotton. The wait-staff station stored burlap used to wrap cotton bales.
“We went to great lengths to leave the building alone,” said Morrison. “It’s little things you might not notice right away.”
For example, the building’s interior remains intact. There are no conduits in the wall, and no pictures or decorations were allowed, either.
“Sometimes, when people go into an old building, they expect a lot of knickknacks and things like that on the wall,” he said.
“But we didn’t want to clutter it up. Had we not done those small things, I don’t think customers would get the same feel.”
Steakhouse a boon to other businesses
The restaurant’s arrival has been a boon to other businesses on the emerging strip. Kayla Potts, owner of Woodhouse Day Spa at The Gin, celebrated the business’ one-year anniversary in January.
“It’s helped having the foot traffic (the restaurant) brings,” said Potts. “We’ve doubled our clientele base since last year, and we’re hitting our markers every month.”
The Brickwood, a family-owned retail shop situated on the main square at The Gin, opened in August 2010. Andrea Morris, the shop’s manager, said the steakhouse’s opening continues to have an impact
“We definitely started seeing more people during spring and summer because of the live concert series,” she said of the weekly concerts from local bands on a pavilion near the creek.
Dominguez said for the area to continue to compete regionally, having late-night options is key.
“We don’t have to (close) up at 5 p.m.,” he said. “We need to be prepared to stay open until 8 or 10 p.m. Offering late-night options, like live music, puts Belton on the map in regards to entertainment.”
“The city of Belton’s been great to us,” said Morrison, adding that the local efforts to promote the downtown area allowed the restaurant to build its clientele through word-of-mouth, saving on initial advertising costs.
Belton City Manager Sam Listi said the project represents a partnership between the public and private sectors. “There are a number of things in our economic development toolbox,” he said. “Through façade easement grants, we help restore the outside walls of buildings, so they maintain their original character.”
The grants, which were $10,000 for each building, are a small but visible investment on the city’s part, said Listi, adding the city also converted a few streets into public parking spaces. “(The developer) had to be able to show a steak restaurant that he had dedicated parking for them to invest.”
Listi said strong commercial shopping centers on the north side of Belton, including Walmart and the new H-E-B Plus, also help create a trickle-down effect for downtown business.
But not all businesses have been successful at The Gin. In 2010, Creekside Art Gallery was one of the first shops to open in the commercial development but closed less than two years later. Some business owners in the development say the challenge is finding an identity in a new retail environment.
Morrison said after six months, The Gin at Nolan Creek, like many new restaurants, is still navigating local tastes and interests to strike the right balance between upscale dining and casual comfort.
“Because we’re a steakhouse, a lot of people think we’re going to be more high-end, but we’re not trying to be that,” said Morrison, adding that he frequently fields questions from callers about dress-code requirements. “We’re trying to be fun and upbeat. We want to find that happy medium for our diners.”
Potts said restaurant patrons often are surprised that there’s a day spa in the square. “People think it’s just boutiques and restaurants,” she said. “They pop in sometimes and ask for a tour. They’re pleasantly surprised by what the area has to offer.”
As local businesses, such as Woodhouse and The Gin at Nolan Creek, settle into their niches, city officials are working to make the downtown areas a true destination for visitors and residents.
Listi said the city’s working on a proposed recreation and beautification project that would create landings along Nolan Creek for watercraft, allowing easy access for kayaking and tubing, and more foot traffic.
“We’re excited about what those features could bring to us,” said Morrison. “There’s a lot of possibility here, and we can see it.”
The potential for increased traffic from possible recreational activities already has spurred some business owners. When Creekside Gallery closed, Morris said her family jumped on the opportunity to have an additional storefront, anticipating a surge of customer interest in the area. The space is now The Mercantile, the latest retail addition to The Gin.
“We see a vision. We think this area could really explode,” said Morris, whose family owns another Brickwood shop in Temple. “We’re at the very beginning of what could be a very big future.”
“I think it’s happening for us,” said Dominguez. “We’re not a household name yet, but we’re getting there.”
At The Gin
Coronas de Oro
The Gin at Nolan Creek
The Weigh Station (yogurt shop)