ROANOKE -- Downtown Roanoke resembled a 19th-century frontier town -- at least at street level -- the first time Jared Matthew saw it.
"When we opened, the street out front was nothing but mud," said the manager of Cowboy Chow and Twisted Root Burger Co., restaurants within spitting distance of each other on South Oak Street.
That was September 2009, when Roanoke was just getting its feet wet in the world of economic development with the hope of becoming a destination, like Grapevine's Main Street and Southlake Town Square.
Now, with the opening of Hawaiian Falls water park, Roanoke believes it has arrived.
Because the water park's main attraction, the six-story-tall Mega Water World and its dozen slides, isn't fully operational, officials aren't expecting huge crowds just yet. But City Manager Jimmy Stathatos said the water park could eventually attract 2,000 people a day, and he's eager to see just how much busier the town can get.
Hawaiian Falls representatives told Roanoke in early 2010 that the company was looking for a location, and Stathatos said the city immediately started selling itself.
"It didn't take much to convince them," Stathatos said. "We told them about the restaurants and the growth and all the rooftops in the vicinity and that the area was underserved in terms of water parks and recreation."
Stathatos said the park will draw from about 150,000 people living within 10 miles of Roanoke. Monday afternoon about 700 visited Hawaiian Falls.
Jack Heikkila, 11, of Southlake, said he spent two hours in and around the wave pool. "This is the best wave pool around, because the waves are bigger," he said.
Sara Buchholz, of the Keller area, said she got season passes for her family, "because this will be our summer thing."
Hawaiian Falls CEO David Busch said the water park -- he calls it "the world's largest tinker toy" -- should be finished by the end of next week.
More going for it
While the water park is Roanoke's first entertainment-related attraction, the city's restaurants, most of them on Oak Street, U.S. 377 and Byron Nelson Boulevard, have their own pull.
The city has made $8.5 million in capital improvements since 2008, including brick accents on streets, wrought-iron rails on sidewalks, period street lights and landscaping. Oak Street now resembles a theme-park street.
"We were shooting for the 'wow' effect," Stathatos said.
City officials also came up with the tagline Unique Dining Capital of Texas.
Stathatos said the city is working to make the title official via legislation or trademark.
Babe's Chicken Dinner House opened in 1993 on Oak Street and is still the city's signature restaurant ( Southern Living magazine says it has the best fried chicken in the South).
By 2004, about 35 restaurants were operating in Roanoke, and now there are more than 50, Stathatos said. Of those, more than a dozen are considered unique, such as Gerhard's German Restaurant and Granny's Cupboard, a sandwich and dessert shop.
"Unique is more a group of restaurants not commonly found in a lot of cities," he said. "We've got Chili's, but we also have Twisted Root, which was featured on Food Network. We have Pizza Hut, but we also have Brix. They have pizza and a wine bar."
Visitors come from every compass point, Stathatos said, and restaurant row is especially popular among residents of Northeast Tarrant County and southern Denton County.
"At night you'll see cars with bumper stickers showing Carroll Dragons, Grapevine Mustangs and Burleson Elks," he said.
The 2010 Census lists Roanoke's population at just under 6,000. Stathatos thinks that it's closer to 8,000, and that lunch and dinner crowds run the number up into the tens of thousands on weekends.
Success shows in sales tax revenue. Roanoke's has more than doubled in eight years, from $3.4 million to $8.5 million.
First-quarter sales tax revenue -- $2.24 million -- exceeds the city's overall budget for 1998.
"We've been here 21/2 years and it's been fantastic," said Peter Dawson, manager of Mi Familia. "We're growing as the area grows, by leaps and bounds."
Popularity has its drawbacks. Roanoke has a parking problem. Developers must include a specific number of spaces in their plans, or pay the city $5,000 for each space short of the mandated number.
And although the city proudly exudes a family atmosphere, Roanoke also is, to a degree, a party town.
Cowboy Chow makes its own bourbon, tequila and vodka, and Mi Familia has a Beer/Rita: a margarita with a 7-ounce beer inverted into it.
Danielle Cocanougher sipped a Beer/Rita on a recent afternoon. In town with friends to celebrate her graduation from New York University, the Justin native was stunned by downtown Roanoke.
"This area wasn't here when I was growing up," she said. "There are a lot of options. If you're looking for a real good time, come here."
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Terry Evans, 817-390-7620