If you’re heading north on I-35, just past Georgetown you’ll find Florence, Texas.
The town of a little more than a thousand people is experiencing big changes.
It used to be a vibrant little town, in part because drivers needed to go through it on their way to Killeen. Up to 18,000 cars used to drive through Florence’s Main Street everyday — but not anymore.
A year ago, an extension of Highway 195 opened up that allows drivers to completely bypass Florence. After a year, local businesses are feeling it.
As you enter Florence, you can see that many of the businesses that were on the side of the road have died.
There’s a gas station that recently shut down with a “For Sale” sign in front. The road that leads to the one-story city-hall-slash-municipal-courthouse is almost barren.
“You are beginning to see our downtown buildings,” says Florence mayor Mary Condon, pointing out a building with a sign reading ‘Florence Friendship Days.’ It’s one of the oldest buildings in Florence, she says, dating back to the 1850s. It’s a beautiful, long, two-story building made of limestone that brings to mind buildings you’d see in old Western movies. It has character — but it has no tenants. It’s empty, as is the building to the left of it.
Downtown Florence is T-shaped, and as Condon walks up and down the T, she keeps count of the number of empty buildings.
Through her informal study, she concludes that about 50 percent of the downtown buildings are empty — but then on the other hand, 50 percent of them are full.
Condon meets Elizabeth Moon – a science fiction writer who lives in Florence – outside a Western wear shop downtown with a turquoise door.
Moon says the shop used to be a hardware store about 30 years ago. Now, Shane Elms owns and runs the shop, which sells cowboy shirts, boots, hats.
“My dad owns the Western store up in Stephenville, if the name sounds familiar,” Elms says. He recalls the time Conan O’Brien was in town and taped a segment at his father’s store.
“The challenge was to take one of his producers — metrosexual guy — and dress him like a cowboy — and it is funny as heck,” he says.
Like most kids in Florence, Elms left after high school. As did his now-wife, also from Florence. But unlike many of the others who get out, Elms and his wife came back. They are part of a group that wants to bring new life to Florence, and one thing they think is badly needed is a new hardware store.
“A big store wouldn’t hurt anything – somewhere people can work would be good. Since we have probably the highest unemployment rate than the rest of the world – seems like, around here,” Elms says.
But now that the highway loop keeps folks from driving through Florence like they used to, who’s going to shop at a big hardware store in town?
“Of course – you can’t have the business without the people. But, you can’t have the people without the business. So…” says Elms, articulating the kind of “chicken and egg” problem Florence seems to be grappling with. Which comes first: businesses for people to want to patronize, or the people who want to patronize future businesses?
Condon has been thinking about ways to solve such a problem.
The mayor wants to bring vibrancy to downtown with businesses that can grow the city’s yearly operational budget — which as of now is just $600,000. Condon needs businesses that don’t need foot or vehicle traffic to survive. One possibility she’s considering is bringing in startups.
“You know, we have very adequate internet access here – no problem with that – so, multiple types of businesses could move in here,” Condon says.
Housing in Florence is much cheaper than it is in Austin — it’s even cheaper than it is in Georgetown or Killeen. That’s one way the mayor would like to market her town to visionaries and entrepreneurs.
But she also thinks the town has potential as an artists’ community.
“I think every place needs to have – at least – some infusion of the arts to be viable,” she says.
Perhaps Condon’s vision stems from growing up in New York City, surrounded by galleries and Broadway shows. Perhaps she loves art because her life-long partner Bob Reagan is an artist himself, a sculptor. The two of them run a shop in Florence called Texas Carved Stone.
A sign detailing the ’employee dress code’ hangs by the door of the shop.
“That’s my dress code, yeah – if you have hair and clothes – wear them!” says Reagan.
He works with limestone from the local quarries. He transforms the blocks of rock into life-size women dressed in flowy gowns or ornamental architectural pieces, like mantels and arches.
“Sometimes the place is full of carving, beautiful carving, and no one comes to visit,” he says.
But Reagan doesn’t necessarily need in-house customers: He sells his work online. He can ship his pieces to anyone in the world. So, though no one stopped at the shop before the loop was built, and no one stops now, his business is still successful.
Condon doesn’t just want businesses to thrive in Florence.
She, along with Moon and others, want the soul and spirit of the residents to be nurtured in town. To that effect, they want to start using the empty buildings downtown as gallery spaces and concert halls. And they are recruiting others.
“If we can begin to get the school re-inspired into looking into what can be done here, without having to drive 20, 40, 60 miles to see something,” she says.
This January, Moon did a little experiment. She wanted to try holding a concert in Florence — something that rarely, if ever, happens there. Moon started a conversation with the Austin Chamber Music Society.
“And they had already scheduled the Aeolus Quartet to come play in Austin, and they said ‘how would you like to be our outreach venue this year?’ My jaw hit the floor, and when I could quit going, ‘gobble, gobble, gobble,’ like a turkey, I said ‘of course, sure.'” says Moon. “Now, at that time, we didn’t have a venue yet.”
Most of the available buildings would have had to get significant work done to be a feasible venue for the event. But the library was available, so they held the concert there. The fire marshal only allowed 40 people at the library — but in a town of 1,000, that was fair enough. The concert was a success.
“And it was talked about for weeks. ‘Why haven’t we done this before? How can we do this again?’” Moon says.
It didn’t put Florence on the map — but it was a start. Maybe it got the ball rolling on the changes that need to happen to revitalize the town. Perhaps that concert will lead local thinkers to that big idea — the one that brings businesses, and people to patronize them, back to Florence.