Wichita Falls Bond Proposals: The Time is Right [Opinion]
Starting today, April 23, early voting gets underway. Wichita Falls voters will be asked to go to the polls and vote on seven bond propositions. I’ve outlined the proposals previously. What I want to do now is tell you where I am on the matter. I’ve thought long and hard about all of it. So if you will, indulge me for a few minutes.
Regardless of how you vote, make your vote an informed vote. Think, rationalize and try to comprehend the what, the why and how of these proposals. But why vote no just because a group of individuals with no vested interest in your city says you should do so? As for me, anyone who knows me knows I’m not easily sold or convinced. If you want to win me over one way or the other, you’re going to work for it. I don’t jump on bandwagons. I’m a constitutionalist, fiercely independent and conservative. I’m also quite capable of recognizing that not everyone, or every city, fit a particular mold. Wichita Falls is unique in many ways.
I’ve thought about, mulled over and digested these bond proposals every way I can. I’ve talked to Mayor Santellana, City Manager Darron Leiker, a dozen business owners, dozens of citizens and my own family. While I have reservations on some aspects, I’ve tried to keep an open mind on every side of these issues. I’ve weighed the pros and cons, the good, the bad and the ugly. And I’ve come to one inescapable conclusion: we actually need to do most of what’s being proposed in these seven bonds.
Keep in mind I am very tough to sell. I personally would’ve pushed for more money for streets and even additional money for water and sewer projects, which we will have to address sooner than later. But I’ve concluded that the current bond items are at least a good start. I want to touch on a few things that have come up in many of my conversations in person and online.
These bonds will raise our taxes, I get that. I can do the math, too. But, here’s where I am on the matter. I was born in Wichita Falls, raised in Wichita Falls and educated in Wichita Falls. I’ve seen the highs and lows, ups and downs of this city for many years. And like many of you, I’ve noticed that Wichita Falls just hasn’t grown. Why?
Many of my classmates (Hirschi High School, class of ’90…Go Huskies!) left Wichita Falls for college, work or military service very soon after graduation. A handful returned, eventually, but most have not. They left because they didn’t see opportunities here. I considered leaving, too. But ultimately, I had both job and education opportunities here. At 21, I met my wife. Family and work kept us right here. I don’t regret that choice. The lure of different or better life and work opportunities cause many of our youth to leave here after high school. Some may even attend Midwestern State University, but once they have that diploma, it’s adios, Wichita Falls.
Young families aren’t coming here to live. We only have one demographic that is actually growing: 55+. It’s a statistical fact that equates to the 800-pound gorilla in the room; we cannot ignore it any longer. It’s a tide we have to turn, and soon, or we’ll wish we had done so. I’ve had people argue that Sheppard AFB brings young families here, so what’s the worry? While I certainly appreciate the tremendous asset that Sheppard is for this city, to rely on the military to keep our town alive is, frankly, foolish. Technology has greatly affected how the military does its job. To assume that the mission of Sheppard will always remain at its current status is not smart thinking. Technology and a changing world landscape may well cause Sheppard to one day soon reduce or completely alter its mission. This could mean more jobs and people, but it could also mean less. Therefore, laying the groundwork for new, innovative businesses to enter the city is vital. So what possible connection could $130 million in bond proposals have to do with growth?
Like I said earlier, you have to work to sell me. Over the past several weeks, I quietly reached out to some people to get their perspective on this. Not Chamber of Commerce people, not city employees or elected officials, no one political at all. I talked to people in business; I talked to people who make $10 an hour and people worth more money than I’ve ever seen. I talked to friends and family. I talked to classmates I haven’t seen in 20 years and people I see nearly every day, or at least a couple times a week. I’ve tried to gain perspective on what keeps people here, what drives them away and what keeps others from wanting to be here. And what I discovered is that I have been both right and wrong on how to get people to take a second look at Wichita Falls, Texas.
Is it about jobs? Yes. Is it about amenities? Yes. Is it about the image of our city? Yes, that too. The problem is more complex than even I have been willing to admit in the past. Politics have played a big role. So many of our past elected officials have lacked either the desire or the courage to tackle certain issues, but that should not be an excuse not to look at what the current possibilities could be. Just good enough has always been good enough. Clearly, it’s not. I’ve always believed that the only way to get the people back was to get more industry here. Jobs to attract people, no doubt, but they want more. What I’ve found is that, as our Chamber of Commerce has asserted, people do want more than just the paycheck.
Doing nothing isn’t getting us anywhere at all. Wichita Falls, sadly, has a track record of doing not enough or doing the job halfway. Let’s face it; there are some things that our city government can do that we individuals cannot. Government at any level does not create wealth. What it can do, what it should do, is facilitate a climate in which small businesses and industry can live, grow and prosper. In my assessment, the bond issues will go a long way towards that. They will, I hope, have the desired domino effect on our economy, one good move leading to another.
I realize that in the past, we’ve been let down by elected officials in our city. I’ve been here for all of my 47 years. There is a distrust that has developed over time that current city officials have to do battle with. Some of them may not like that or feel that they shouldn’t have to. Too them I say too bad. It comes with the territory. Like it or not, you have to build relationships with the citizens. All that said, I think we may be turning a corner in that department. I see some of the old, outdated and negative ideologies crumbling away and that is a very good thing.
Henry Florsheim, the president and CEO of the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce, recently told me that the city has been very proactive about reaching out to the developer community to improve relationships. I’ve also learned through other channels that contractors are meeting with the city manager’s office regularly now. Dialogue is opening up and that will lead to good progress.
Some of my discussions with people over the last several weeks have revolved around schools, particularly building one or more new high schools. We’ve been down the one ‘super school’ idea road and it was soundly rejected. Wichita Falls High School folks want their own new facility, as do the Rider High School folks. That’s fine, but it comes with a price. Some have asked ‘Why doesn’t the city of Wichita Falls focus on new schools first’? The City of Wichita Falls does not build schools. That is it the job of the Wichita Falls ISD. The city can do nothing about it. And for the record, I am an advocate for building two new public schools and maintaining the third, Hirschi High School. A few have mentioned closing Hirschi. You’ll have a fight on your hands and I’ll be leading the charge on that one. Bottom line, we have a legal and, yes, a constitutional obligation to educate our youth. Not everyone can attend a private school. For the majority of our youth, public school is an absolute necessity. And the new schools will be a big component of facilitating the growth of both people and business in Wichita Falls.
Exactly how will the bonds facilitate the growth and expansion? In and of themselves, bond measures don’t translate into immediate growth. The results of the work done with the funds help to create the climate needed to facilitate the growth. Based on what I’ve learned in my research and discussions, giving us a long overdue facelift will elevate the image of this city. Elevating our image will help put a better spotlight on us. Many are asking ‘why such a focus on downtown?’
When I was growing up here in the 70’s and 80’s, downtown was dying quickly. Gradually, all the retail migrated south and west. McClurkans, Perkins, Muhlberger’s, Walgreens, Sears-one by one, they moved or went out of business altogether. Some of it was the oil economy. Some of it was the abandonment that downtowns all over America were suffering. By 1992, you could shoot a cannon off in downtown Wichita Falls and not hit a soul. Businesses had fled and there was little reason to travel downtown.
My wife is from Lafayette, LA. I started traveling there in 1993. Downtown Lafayette was not so different than downtown Wichita Falls’ in the early 90s. But gradually, over a 15 to 20 year period, they staged a comeback. It’s been a combination of both public and private investment. Some of the business people I’ve talked to there are adamant; the public investment is what brought the private money back in a big way. Coincidentally, Henry Florsheim worked for the chamber in Lafayette as well. He’ll tell you, their re-birth was already underway when he arrived there, but he learned a great deal from both the public and the private sector in Lafayette. Wichita Falls can learn much from them, too. Abandoning downtown is not an option. Things are getting better, but it needs a boost.
My opinions and ideas on what we should and should not do have evolved over the past couple of years. I want Wichita Falls to be a city my children will be willing to stay in and my grandchildren will want to stay in. Our population hasn’t changed much at all since the 1960’s. Business-as-usual isn’t working for us any longer. Will we ever be as big as Fort Worth or even Lubbock? Not very likely, but if we don’t start to add more young families to our population, our current 104,000 will likely fall well below the 95,000 mark within 25 years or less. I think a realistic number for us is a city of 125,000 to 150,000 within a 10 to 20-year timespan. It’s attainable, in fact, it’s critical. As we grow our tax base, we can spread out the burden and do more.
I love this city. We have so many good things going for us. But keeping it alive is clearly going to take more than wishful thinking and conjecture. We need some real-world action. It would be a dream come true if 20, 40 or more new companies set up shop here and invested millions of their own money in streets, sidewalks and restoration projects. But it’s just that-a dream.
I’m not suggesting a ‘build it and they will come’ approach. I’m suggesting doing what we’ve been afraid to do for many years now and invest in ourselves as a city. Let’s reach out to the mayor, the council, the city manager and staff. Let’s talk to one another. Let’s demand and expect accountability. Let’s work on getting the desired results together. Call your city officials and ask questions if you feel the need before you head to the polls. You might be surprised to learn that they really do want to talk to you. Let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s bet on ourselves for a change. I’ve done my homework; I’ve had lots of lengthy and sometimes difficult conversations and decided it’s worth it. I’m voting yes on the bond propositions.
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