If, as the old saying goes, the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then surely the same theory could hold true for tourism and economic development.
That’s what happened in the past decade in Roanoke, the quiet Denton County community that was best known as the home of the late legendary golfer Byron Nelson and for the original Babe’s Chicken Dinner House on Oak Street, where people tailgated or lined the street for an hour or more to get a plate of its mouth-watering fried chicken.
Roanoke is known as the “Unique Dining Capital of Texas,” having been declared that by the State Legislature in 2009. It’s a city that’s made a remarkable transformation with 54 restaurants and counting – that’s one restaurant for every 122 of its roughly 6,600 residents.
Much of the credit for that innovative transformation can go to Justin Springfield and his partner, Chris Gordon, of Old Town Development. Springfield recently took time to talk about how he and Gordon took a chance on Roanoke, tying their business success to a vision of how a small city’s downtown could be re-invigorated as a magnet for diners and tourism.
“Downtowns have always been near and dear to my heart.”
“Downtowns have always been near and dear to my heart,” he said.
Springfield moved to neighboring Trophy Club from northwest Arkansas in 2001, and he and Gordon both were in the pharmaceuticals industry. Springfield’s father was in the banking industry and was picked by the Walton family to run the Walton Charitable Trust.
“I had sort of this front-row experience of the proliferation of big-box, thoroughfare locations, huge parking lots,” he said.
“Cool buildings in downtowns just started going dark,” he said. Much of that was because of the nature of “mom-and-pop” retailers that opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 5 p.m., and were not open on the weekends, Springfield said.
Big box stores, on the other hand, offered access and convenience.
“But I think what people really want is an authentic experience,” Springfield said. “And, when I started looking down here, Scott Polikov of Gateway Planning had put together a zoning overlay for the area.”
ROANOKE’S VISION FOR ITSELF MADE SENSE
The city had hung a poster with a vision for what it wanted outside the old Rock Hotel on Oak Street before it was renovated.
“I thought it made a lot of sense,” Springfield said said of the vision.
Springfield had a family friend named John Beeson, who was a real estate developer in Houston and owned Beeson Properties. Beeson became a real estate mentor for Springfield.
“At the time I was thinking I would buy an existing building and fix it up, and help revitalize an area by making an old ugly building look good again,” Springfield said. He later saw himself building new structures.
When he first looked at Roanoke, developing there made sense because he lived in Trophy Club, and, “I thought it would be a good restaurant location because of Babe’s”
And, because no one had really done much along Oak Street, he began looking for tenants who had success in other downtown areas.
“I wanted an owner-operator tenant, and at the time, Twisted Root had one location in Deep Ellum. I brought him (owner Jason Bosso) out here, and he saw people tailgating at Babe’s,” Springfield said. That sight piqued Bosso’s interest.
“For a long time, nobody would take me seriously, but he was one who did.”
Justin Springfield, about former city manager Jimmy Stathatos
Springfield said he began talking with former Roanoke City Manager Jimmy Stathatos about his ideas. Stathatos now is Flower Mound city manager.
“For a long time, nobody would take me seriously, but he was one who did,” Springfield said. “He was the city manager, and it was his job to generate economic development in the area.”
Springfield took Stathatos and then Mayor pro tem Holly Gray McPherson to meet with Bosso in Deep Ellum.
Bosso was definitely interested, but insisted he could only do a deal if the city took away his “risk.”
Stathatos went to Roanoke’s Economic Development Corp. and it came up with incentive money. Springfield offered a “significant finish-out allowance,” and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
“All of a sudden, he (Bosso) gets a turn-key opportunity where he just walks in, kicks the doors open, and moves in his tables and chairs and equipment, and he’s open for business,” Springfield said.
The surface of Oak Street was redone from an old, often rough surface to a smooth, easily navigated roadway with roundabouts. Parking was redesigned from angled to parallel. The city built new parking lots off of Oak Street to accommodate additional vehicles.
Twisted Root opened in 2007 in Springfield’s new structure catty-corner from Babe’s on Oak Street. It was an immediate hit, partly boosted by its Deep Ellum location being featured that week on the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives television show. Soon, it was joined by Cowboy Chow (now Tacos and Avocados), and Brix, which now is called Enzo’s.
“It makes my heart smile to do some kind of stimulus for the community.”
Soon Hard Eight BBQ was lured to an Old Town property a block from Twisted Root. Now, It has a constant stream of customers on weekends, and its smoke fills Roanoke with an alluring aroma.
Those restaurants, and others that followed, joined some longtime restaurants in Roanoke such as Reno Red’s, Dove Creek Café and Classic Café.
Springfield’s Old Town Development is continuing the community-oriented spirit it started in Roanoke by developing the new Bread Winners Café & Corner Bar that is about to open just off Texas 114 in Trophy Club near the new Town Hall. He’s planning another development across the street that will include some innovative office concepts and more dining.
Springfield also has projects in Flower Mound and in Coppell.
All of Old Town’s projects are centered on enhancing the communities they are in, and since Springfield lives and works in the communities, he takes their success to heart.
“You can’t tell me I haven’t been a good steward of my community,” Springfield said. “It makes my heart smile to do some kind of stimulus for the community.”
A version this story originally appeared in the Dallas-Fort Worth Real Estate Review.
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