Frisco developer Donny Churchman will tell you downtowns are his passion.
He’ll tell you he gets it from his grandmother, a former mayor of Pasadena who took pride in the revitalization of the California city’s downtown.
“I never knew it was a passion of mine, but it was always in my head, how much I loved downtown Pasadena,” Churchman said. “And then when I started visiting other downtowns, I always thought of downtown Pasadena, and I realized how much I loved it.”
It’s still on his mind as Churchman, the brains behind “The Rail District” in downtown Frisco, works to make the city’s downtown the best in the country.
Churchman’s vision for downtown Frisco has multiple layers: he sees it as a future foodie destination, an entertainment center, a “Neighborhood for all” and a place where visitors staying at one of the two Omni locations in Frisco will go to see the sights.
But when he first moved to Frisco in 2011, Churchman almost missed downtown Frisco entirely after driving through
“There was no one on the streets,” he recalled. “There was no activity, nothing like that going on.”
From 2011 through 2016, he didn’t see much of a change. By 2016, Churchman had launched Nack Development--named for his grandparents’ last name--and had set his sights on revitalizing the area.
On a Thursday in March, we sit at La Finca Coffee and Bakery, a cornerstone business in the development that has become the Patios at the Rail off of Frisco’s Main Street. On that Thursday, two years after the onset of a pandemic threatened small businesses, La Finca is abuzz with coffee and conversation, as it has been for months.
In 2017, Churchman said, a study was done to gauge demand for restaurants in the downtown Frisco area. Since then, La Finca is the first restaurant Nack Development has added downtown, he said.
There are more on the way, including an Italian kitchen, as well as an upscale Mexican cuisine restaurant, which will be located at the other “bookend” of the area.
“And we’re still not even close to tapping the demand for restaurants in the Rail District, per that study that’s now five years old, which assumed no growth (...),” Churchman said. “And we’ve had tremendous growth.”
The Patios at the Rail served as a catalyst project to get the downtown area going, he said. Today, other elements have been added to the vision, including The Tower at the Rail, programming at the Nack Theater, The Ford Building and The Terrace on The Plaza.
It’s all the culmination of multiple years of intentional work.
“We hear a lot today of just, ‘All of a sudden, the rail district’s on fire,’” Churchman said. “It’s not ‘All of a sudden.’ We’ve been putting the work in for six years, but people didn’t pay attention at that point because there was nothing here.”
Now, heads are turning. Regional headlines have begun following Nack’s milestones, including the city of Frisco’s recent agreement to approve $3.6 million in grant money to support the Ritchey Gin. The latest downtown venture by Nack Development is slated to include a brewery, parking garage and office space.
Churchman gives the city kudos for the support it’s offered downtown over time, including the grant money, infrastructure improvements, the inclusion of a plaza and financial support for parking garages.
“That shouldn’t be lost on folks, that the city’s doing that,” Churchman said. “So they are investing, and it’s not talked about enough, that they’re putting money into the downtown.”
Within the first year and a half of the venture, Churchman said, Nack Development bought about 13 properties in downtown Frisco with the goal of approaching it all with a similar narrative.
“By the time we’re done with the Ritchey Gin, we’ll be over $70 million invested in the downtown,” Churchman said. “And then the city’s putting in another 20, so we’re close to $100 million invested in the downtown in under 10 years. That makes a huge difference. And that’s not even counting the marketing dollars.”
Today, Churchman said, they’re about 15% of the way towards the goal as restaurants prepare to open in the fall.
“Which means we’re probably another five to seven years away from it being fantastic, from it being a true destination for people outside of Frisco,” he added.
In about 18 months, he said, visitors will be able to spend an entire day downtown.
“We have to give them a reason to stay,” he said. “So we’ve now given them a reason to come, now we have to give them a reason to stay, and that’s what we’re building.”
For Churchman, it’s not about merely trying to match the energies of downtown Grapevine or McKinney.
“I think that’s small thinking is to try to be like McKinney or try and be like Grapevine,” he said. “We need to be a destination for the country.”