A little over two years after the Roy F. and Joanne Cole Mitte Foundation purchased the Jackson Feed & Seed and Copy Systems properties along East 7th Street between East Ringgold Street and the expressway, the Austin-based nonprofit has rolled out a master plan for a total makeover of that chunk of the Mitte Cultural District.
The $2 million project, which has already broken ground, features new landscaping adjacent to Dean Porter Park, an outdoor performance venue, food truck park, additional space for the Brownsville Farmers’ Market and nutrition education, and auxiliary public parking. The plan also calls for an open lawn near the stage with grass berm seating, improvements to Sombrero Festival Headquarters, a learning garden, wildflower meadow, pavilions, sombrero sculpture, outdoor movie screen and exhibit space, and a cultural district headquarters.
“The biggest thing is it’s coming soon,” said Mitte Foundation board President R.J. Mitte III. “We’re pushing forward on doing this and making it functional.”
Mitte, grandson of the organization’s founders, Screen Actors Guild Award-winning actor and a Brownsville resident since September 2019, said the master plan took a couple of years to come together but that he didn’t want the project itself to drag on for years.
“Yes, COVID had put some hiccups in what we were going to build and what we were going to work on, but at the same time it’s coming,” he said. “We’re very excited to be able to be granting this and helping cultivate the community by providing space.”
Mitte said it will make for a much more appealing portal to the cultural district and downtown and, ideally, will end up generating more foot traffic for attractions like the Brownsville Museum of Fine Art, Gladys Porter Zoo, and the Children’s Museum of Brownsville in Dean Porter Park. He said the project should be finished by September 2021.
The master plan also makes Mitte land available for an expansion of the Children’s Museum, one geared toward STEM-oriented educational programs for young adults. The project is in the preliminary planning stage, though Mitte said he hopes to work with the museum to help secure the grants necessary to making the expansion happen. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Mitte said he wants revamped district in general to be a place people want to stop and investigate and something families in the adjacent neighborhood will embrace and make their own.
“Having the space to be able to kind of social distance and walk, that’s something that I think we need now more than ever, because so many people are locked in their house and we need to be able to get people out and walking, and have the ability to feel safe when they’re walking,” he said.
“Just the little work that we’ve done, I’ve seen a lot more people outside and walking in that space. I’m very happy to see the very little that we’ve been able to break ground on, it’s already cultivating that foot traffic.”
Mitte’s grandfather grew up in Brownsville before making a fortune in the insurance industry. The foundation he created in 1994 funded a number of improvements in the district bearing his name, starting with renovations to the area around Dean Porter Park. The foundation made no grants to Brownsville from 2005 to 2015, however, though the newest $2 million project brings the total money spent here to $5 million, according to the foundation.
The renewed focus on Brownsville began when Mitte took over as board president in 2019.
“That journey started five years ago when we were working on some stuff in Austin,” he said. “We were thinking we had the ability to do something cool and progressive in the community. … I was like, well, why don’t we see what we can do in Brownsville, because we haven’t had a presence in Brownsville in quite some time.”
At that point the foundation’s grants were focused on Austin and central Texas, Mitte said.
“Austin needs help but not like the RGV and not like Brownsville,” he said. “What we could do with $1 million in Austin, we could make that look like $5 million in Brownsville. It just goes so much further, and that’s when we started coming here more and doing more site visits and kind of getting familiar with the terrain and the environment and the people.”
Mitte said the project started with the feed store and then grew into something “more encompassing of the area.”
Roy De los Santos Jr., foundation board and immediate past chairman of the Mitte Cultural District, said early plans called for exhibit space on the site of the old feed store, though that view changed.
“With the advent of COVID and as discussions continued, we realized there wasn’t as much of a need for exhibit space as there was for more outdoor space,” he said.
Also, the adjacent Cannery Public Market project using the former Gutierrez warehouse East 6th and Ringgold streets is not part of the Mitte effort, though there is coordination between the two projects. The renovated Quonset hut warehouse will serve as the new home of the Brownsville Farmers’ Market.
“Now that that project is moving forward we’re working closely with them, so we’ve got our architects for the Mitte property improvement working with the architects for the Quonset hut renovation,” De los Santos said, adding that the design aesthetic is “pretty consistent throughout.”
“There will be some differences here and there, but overall we want everything to complement each other,” he said. “And then we’re doing the same thing at Sombrero Festival (headquarters).”
For the first time, the headquarters building is getting a sign identifying it as such, De los Santos said.
“The aesthetic will complement the Mitte Cultural District as you come in,” he said.
Although work on the overall project has already started, people will see quite a bit more progress over the next two months, De los Santos said.
“We have asked our architects to make sure a sign goes up at both ends of that property showing the public what the finished project is going to look like,” he said.
Mitte Foundation Executive Director Coleith Molstad said the organization is interested in preserving and highlight the city’s cultural and historical richness while also providing residents spaces to enjoy and the community opportunities for growth.
“I think we’re doing that well,”she said. “I think there’s certainly need in Brownsville that the foundation can help with. In the property that we purchased we’re positioning to meet some of those current needs. And then we’re also positioned to help expand the cultural district and provide other opportunities for looking toward the future, which is really what we’re hoping for.”