Reimagine Commerce: Planning for Revitalization

The city of Commerce and university are jointly considering a long-term plan named “Reimagine Commerce” to improve safety, beauty, and city tax revenue that will reshape certain areas inside the city.

“The concept of having our community that surrounds our university to reflect the university’s excellence is what’s driven this discussion,” Wyman Williams, mayor of Commerce and Vice President of Institutional Advancement, said. “It’s been going on since [A&M-Commerce President] Dr. Keck got here. We started talking about what we might do related to city, university, and ISD coordination.”

Safety improvements in the plan presented by the Toole Design Group include re-engineering Highway 24 and several major streets such as Culver throughout Commerce, and this would provide safer crosswalks, wider sidewalks, and narrower streets. The first street to undergo changes will be Live Oak.

“The original plan was to buy land from property owners to widen the sidewalk,” Williams said. “Well, the street’s wide enough, and actually now that we have a plan, we’re not going to buy land from the property owners. We’re actually going to make the street more narrow which slows down traffic.”

The proposed university village for its employees is “unprecedented” for a public university although private universities do much the same because they are under less restrictions. Photo Courtesy | Toole Design Group

Additional safety improvements would come in the form of roundabouts at major intersections such as Live Oak-Highway 24 and Culver-Highway 24 intersections. Roundabouts are in theory safer than four-way intersections and provide less opportunity for vehicle and pedestrian accidents.

Beautifying the city and university will include more greenery along streets and Highway 24 and a complete redesign of the Commerce square, and the university also plans to build a university village for its employees along Bois D’Arc Street, taking up Parking Lots 16, 19, 21, and part of 18.

“This is unprecedented in the state,” Williams said. “The idea of this would be to take university and actually turn it over to the resident who bought it, and that way, the city gets tax revenue from it. We don’t know if that’s legal, but that is a goal to get properties built that are attractive to university employees.”

Parking spaces will be added along Highway 24 and the streets along the Commerce square, but the parking spaces will be back-in parking in which the driver needs to reverse into the space with the end of the car pointing toward the sidewalk.

With the redesign of the Commerce square, it will be set flushed with the sidewalk with the possible exception of the west side, and this part of the project will require major groundwork as the square now is uneven.

Reimagine Commerce will not only improve appearance of the city but also the future taxable values. With a major project in store, businesses have already changed hands in anticipation of higher selling prices, and future investments in property will also add to the city’s property tax revenue.

Despite the positive outlook on this project by Williams and others in the community, negative pushback is to be expected, and arguments against this plan range from construction blocking roads to property taxes becoming too high for some to afford.

“I think a major change is introduced, there will be those who are satisfied with the way it is and don’t want to go through the hassle of construction and reconstruction,” Williams said. “Those [tax-related problems] are real concerns. We’re not talking about increasing tax rates. We’re talking about tax value which in the long run is an advantage to every one of us.”

Changes to the Commerce square will include a splash pad at the center in front of City Hall and newly designed roads to accommodate for pedestrians and vehicles. Photo Courtesy | Toole Design Group

With a possible price tag of several million dollars and the high number of large non-taxable entities such as the university, schools, and churches, funding the plan is key, and a method called tax increment funding has been chosen by the city council.

“The way it works is that the city council will declare a geographic region called a tax increment district,” Williams said. “Every property in that district currently has a taxable value, and the city council will declare that taxable value as the base. The council will decide if this will be a 10-year, 15-year district where taxes will be different, and taxes will continue to be collected throughout the time that this district is effective.”

The increment is the difference between the base value and a newly appraised value of a property that has been invested in, and that increment in the form of a dollar amount will go into an account that will be used to repair the city’s infrastructure. The city has not yet declared a tax increment district.

Sulphur Springs serves as the precedent for this entire plan; the design group that worked on Sulphur Springs’s square was the same hired by Commerce. Sulphur Springs also used tax increment funding over a period of 10 years, and property values along with the tax values have skyrocketed.

“The goal for Commerce would be to imitate their success, drawing businesses to their downtown area that are sustainable,” Williams said. “It would become a regional destination for those businesses and entertainment that can perform in the downtown area. It would be much more vibrant [than Sulphur Springs] because we have much more youth in our city.”