#352. Downtown Undergoing Renaissance in Texas Town

Posted on | The Agurban

We love to hear stories of small towns surviving, and thriving, especially in a difficult economy. The story that follows is a great example of how one person can start a trend that sets a town on a course for success.
Downtown undergoing renaissance in Texas town
By CHRIS VAUGHN Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2011-09-10

NOCONA – The temperature regularly reads 108 on the downtown bank sign, and it’s still difficult sometimes to find parking. In Texas, it’s easy to read the fortunes of a business or commercial district by the number of parking spaces available. For many years, since about the era of tailfins and chrome, parking in downtown Nocona was as wide-open as the cattle country stretching north to the Red River.

But Nocona, a town of 3,000 with a history of pumping black crude and stitching leather boots, is emerging from a long winter of neglect and deterioration, infusing hope and pride, not to mention millions of dollars in investment, into a community that didn’t have a lot to brag about in recent years.

Ten buildings downtown have been completely renovated and restored to the look of their early 1900s origins. One block of buildings is under restoration by an oilman and his wife, who are relocating their oil company from Wichita Falls.

People are building residential spaces above or next to their businesses, proving that downtown condos are not just the purview of urbanites. And a once-a-month concert of Texas red dirt musicians is drawing people with addresses in Fort Worth, Grapevine and McKinney.

This renaissance is occurring in a city where there is no grand courthouse or darling public square. It is occurring in a town that is not on the way to anywhere else, unless someone needs to go to Spanish Fort or Belcherville. Even more miraculously, it is happening with private money and no tax incentives.

Nocona’s turnaround can be traced directly to Dan Fenoglio, a fast-talking, artistic construction company owner. Dan Fenoglio, Nocona Mayor Robert Fenoglio’s younger brother, spent $500 in 2002 to buy two condemned buildings adjacent to each other on Clay Street. One was his maternal grandfather’s grocery store from the 1920s, so he had some sentimental attachment.

Between paying jobs, Dan Fenoglio cleaned up the buildings, shored them up and eventually began restoring them into something he could really enjoy – a saloon and a dance hall with a big smoker in the back.

“I like to cook, and I wanted to have a place to have a drink with some friends,” he said. “I didn’t do this with the idea of changing downtown.”

The experience of reviving the saloon and his grandfather’s grocery taught him a lesson that would ultimately shape the rest of downtown.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in the history of Nocona,” he said. “But when I was working on these buildings, the old-timers would bring me pictures and share stories with me. Most of the pictures in this saloon are from people in town who gave them to me. I got interested in the history from talking to them.”

The blue-stem and tall-grass prairie gave birth to Nocona in 1887. The town built a reputation for oil and leather. The North Field boomed for many years, and a roughneck didn’t have to look far for work. The Nocona Boot Co., started by Enid Justin because she was angry at her brothers for moving Justin Boot to Fort Worth, employed hundreds. Nokona Leather Goods manufactured some of the most sought-after baseball and softball gloves, not to mention more aerodynamic footballs, anywhere in the country.

But oil prices collapsed, and the Middle East became the prime oil supplier for the world. People wanted cheaper gloves too, and China could do that better. Justin Industries shut down Nocona Boot in 1999. The downtown looked all but abandoned, and it was getting close to actually being that way.

But Dan Fenoglio’s painstaking restoration a few years ago had an effect on Nocona. It spurred more of the same. The school district renovated its two buildings downtown, stripping off the dated ’70s facades and returning the buildings to their turn-of-the-century beginnings.

Superintendent Harold Reynolds, who was responsible for that, retired but decided he wasn’t done playing preservationist.

“Downtown was dying. It was terrible,” his wife, Sandra Reynolds, said. “When we retired from the school system, we felt like we needed to give back in some way.”

So the Reynolds cashed in some of their retirement funds and bought a 100-year-old former bank building. The tin ceiling and plaster walls were original, but the floor was dirt, and the upstairs slept the occasional homeless squatter. Now it’s the Times Forgotten Steakhouse, the first restaurant in downtown Nocona in years and a far more sophisticated place than the fast-food or barbecue restaurants most small towns support.

The spirit of restoration continued to Rusty Fenoglio, who owns and operates Gibbs Pharmacy downtown. (He is distantly related to Dan and Robert Fenoglio.) By 2010, Fenoglio had gutted the second floor and turned it into a 2,400-square-foot living space for him and his wife.

The restoration of downtown reached a tipping point quickly this year when Pete and Barbara Horton returned to their hometown for, of all things, the city’s first-ever Mardi Gras parade. Pete Horton owns Peba Oil & Gas Co. in Wichita Falls, where the couple has lived for eight years. The couple bought very nearly a block of buildings, plus several on other blocks, and began restoration. Local construction crews are involved, but the Hortons also hired craftsmen from Dallas-Fort Worth, filling local motels and restaurants for weeks at a time.

Two of the buildings, including an old Chevrolet dealership, will be used to showcase Horton’s rare-car collection. Another two buildings will house Peba Oil & Gas. The Hortons also plan to build a New Orleans-style house on one corner of downtown, reminiscent of their current vacation house in the Big Easy.

“We’ve never done any of this before, so we don’t know what we’re doing,” Barbara Horton said. “But eventually we’d like to see a bike trail and a park downtown. I’d like for downtown Nocona to be pretty and friendly and welcoming and maybe a destination spot, if even for an afternoon.

“But if no one ever comes, that’s OK,” she said. “It’ll still be worth it because we love our little community.”