Driving into Castroville on a weekday morning — passing miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic on U.S. Highway 90 heading towards San Antonio — one of the first things you encounter is a big ol’ Walmart, followed by the usual smorgasbord of fast food eateries — Sonic, Pizza Inn, Whataburger.
It’s not until you get to the Medina River, with its nondescript concrete bridge, that you run into anything that speaks to the historic town’s culture and history. That would be Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, established in 1974 and known for its pastries and breads.
It’s right across the street from Sammy’s, established in 1948, which gets its produce from local markets and its steaks from Dziuk’s Meat Market (1975) down the street.
Adjacent to Sammy’s and right on the river is the half-timbered Steinbach Alsatian Haus, originally built in Wahlbach, France, between 1618 and 1648 and relocated to Castroville in 1998.
On the fourth corner of the spot known as the “Four Corners” is a Bill Miller Bar-B-Q. Sitting on what Castroville resident Willie Kempf calls “probably the most beautiful stretch of the river in town,” the chain restaurant occupies the former site of the Riviera Motel, which locals of a certain age remember fondly. It advertised its “air-conditioning” and “color TV” in every room and featured “continental bridal suites” and “resort facilities.”
“I remember going to eat pizza at the Riviera with my parents when I was a kid,” said John Guzman, 52, a medical equipment salesman who has lived in Castroville most of his life. “We would fish and swim in the river there, and I want my kids to have that kind of experience.”
The feeling that more local landmarks like the Riviera could be lost spurred the formation of a group of Castroville residents who recently formed the Castroville Downtown Redevelopment Fund, a private investment vehicle established to reenergize the town’s downtown district. The investors will retain ownership of the buildings, oversee restoration, and keep the profits of leasing them to businesses aligned with revitalization efforts grounded in preserving the culture and charm of Castroville and its rich history as Texas’ first Alsatian community, established in 1844.
“When the Riviera was torn down, some of us began to think that if we don’t move now, it’s going to happen all over town,” said Josh Kempf, a 35-year-old Castroville resident with deep roots in the town. “It was the impetus for this, I guess you could say.”
Families chipping in
Serious conversations about forming a fund to purchase downtown buildings started in May, and in July, the Kempf brothers and a few associates hosted what might be considered a come-to-Jesus meeting in the big ballroom of the restored events center on Fiorella Street, a 1907 building that’s been a lot of things over the years, from hardware store to saloon.
The story goes that Louis Huth, who was Republic of Texas empresario Henri Castro’s business agent and right-hand man, began brewing beer in the basement of the building, where there were once two wells, in 1846.
“We have to have somebody making beer in Castroville,” Josh Kempf said. “It’s in our blood.”
After the meeting, Willie Kempf said, the “initial equity goal of seven figures was reached in 36 hours,” with more than 30 local families buying “units” in the for-profit fund.
The fund already has purchased four buildings, including the events center, the old Dan’s Meat Market, and the old post office.
“It’s a generational investment in that the units can be handed down in a family,” said Willie Kempf, a commercial real estate broker and former pro baseball pitcher with four kids age 4 and under.
The goal is to create a district that would encompass restaurants, a microbrewery, perhaps an ice-cream parlor, a Western wear shop, art galleries and a boutique grocery store, where locally made products such as sausage can be sold.
“Every family in Castroville has its own secret sausage recipe that they think is the best and that is very well protected,” said Josh Kempf, a former investment banker who moved back home recently to raise his family — three kids under 6 with a fourth on the way. “It’s part of our Alsatian heritage. Once a year families get together and make several hundred pounds of pork and venison sausage.”
“Growing up here, I thought everyone made their own sausage,” Willie Kempf added. “When I went out in the world, I discovered nobody makes their own sausage. I was like, what do you people do? Our grandmother still speaks Alsatian, but, you know, the culture is fading away, and that’s part of the motivation.”
The idea, he said, is not to make Castroville into a “tourist trap,” but to attract businesses that would serve the community as well as draw visitors from the area, including San Antonio.
“The goal is to have locals retain control over this corridor,” said Guzman, a partner in the investment fund.
As opposed to, say, Fredericksburg, another town that treasures its European heritage, Castroville is just 30 minutes away from San Antonio, Josh Kempf said, “So a family, or couple, could easily come out for dinner and then get back by bedtime.”
The community calls the shots
The Castroville fund is an “intriguing” opportunity for small town revitalization, and it may be unique simply due to the number of local investors, said Bradford Patterson, director of the Texas Historical Commission’s community heritage development division.
“Sometimes you’ll see a couple of partners buy some downtown buildings, but I don’t know of anything of this magnitude in Texas,” he said. “There is a growing crowd-funding movement in other states, where communities want to take control of development rather than just leave it all up to the free market. That’s what Castroville seems to be saying: ‘This is coming. Somebody is going to buy these buildings, so why not let it be us in the community?’”
While the Castroville investors insist they are not anti-business, Patterson notes that there are “pros and cons” to big businesses such as Walmart moving into a small community.
“Ultimately, more money leaves the community, but that’s been going on for decades,” Patterson said. “On the other hand, consumers get price advantages and a much wider breadth of products. It’s hard for small-town businesses to compete with the profit margins, but I’ve found that the ones who change their products or services, customize them in ways that big stores can’t, can be successful. They have to find a local niche that the big stores can’t fill. But small towns across the board are not dying out.”
He points to Georgetown, about 30 miles north of Austin, as a town that has successfully resisted urban sprawl and retained its downtown and historic character.
“There is a point at which it’s too late to do that,” Patterson said. “But perhaps Castroville is in a position to reap the benefits of this fund, if they leverage it in a positive way.”
Sustaining a legacy
Henri Castro, descended from Portuguese Jews who had fled to France after the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition, was a “relentless visionary,” according to Josh Kempf.
“He was a very wealthy man, but he basically depleted all his wealth trying to get Castroville started,” he said. “His land grant was actually west of here in Indian country, but he bought this tract where the town is — and the river had a lot to do with it — with his own money, just to try to get the people to stay.
“Every time something needed to be done, he did it, often at his own expense. And that’s something that our ancestors have done in every generation. We feel like this is our legacy, and that’s why we’ve banded together as families to preserve our culture and heritage.”