Downtown development faces challenges in Odessa

The lack of developers participating in a Downtown Master Plan townhall session on Wednesday exposed perhaps the city’s greatest challenge to developing downtown – developers have no interest in the idea, Kimley-Horn Vice-President Jeff Whitacre acknowledged during the meeting.

About 30 local developers were invited, to participate in a Zoom townhall meeting to discuss downtown development ideas, but none did so.

“We need to get more housing, and retail downtown, but the challenge is attracting developers,” Whitacre told about two dozen townhall participants, which included community and business leaders and interested residents. “They didn’t join us today, but we’ll continue to reach out to developers.”

Sondra Eoff, co-owner of OP Partner, Inc. and Eoffical Enterprises, Inc., the company that spearheaded the downtown Marriott Hotel & Convention Center project, said many developers are not yet convinced that they can make money downtown.

“I think many developers are waiting to see if they can make money,” Eoff said during the Zoom townhall. “We do have room for shopping centers and restaurants – they can make money.”

But Eoff said she believes the city may have to court developers outside Odessa, because local developers don’t see the potential.

Initially, Eoff said she wanted to pursue other downtown development projects, but the hotel was a big investment, and COVID-19 has slowed down their plans.

“We did have a developer that wanted to put in more housing, but they wanted to use our money to do it,” Eoff said. “Nobody I know of is interested in downtown development.”

Craig Stoker, chairman of the city’s Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, said he believes the city’s best chance for success is to create a downtown that includes a mixture of housing, restaurants, retail businesses and a variety of events and activities.

But even Stoker, known for his optimistic nature, acknowledged that “we have not yet figured out a way to attract investment.”

Several residents and current downtown business owners suggested that the city needs to develop a stronger marketing plan that showcases the opportunities downtown can offer.

Updating downtown maps, and listing the strengths that already exist downtown, like a great art scene, might persuade new developers, said Natalie Tiller, a San Jose, CA, designer who previously lived in Odessa. Tiller is co-owner of the designing firm Lujo Collective.

“I think the city needs better marketing and branding,” Tiller said.

Realtor John Herriage, whose Copper Key Realty business is located downtown, agreed.

“The city hasn’t done a lot of marketing of available land parcels downtown,” Herriage said. “I think the other problem we face is there are a lot of naysayers about downtown.

“They just want to cause problems and complain about it without getting involved and changing things.”

Kimley-Horn hosted a series of nine townhall meetings, which concluded on Wednesday. Each session focused on different downtown topics, such as parking, land use, activities and public events and streetscaping and walkability.

Whitacre said the consulting firm’s next step is to compile and review all the feedback received this week and then share it with city officials. Consultants will then begin working with city officials to prioritize goals and develop strategies to reach their objectives.

The city council in June voted unanimously to hire planning and design architects Kimley-Horn to oversee the updating of the plan. The firm is being paid $85,000 for their work. Whitacre has said the project will take about six months to complete.