Tag Archives: Amarillo City Council

APD returns to community policing

Terry Childers didn’t exactly distinguish himself during the year or so he served as Amarillo’s interim city manager.

Childers did, however, make one stellar personnel decision in 2016: hiring Ed Drain — an assistant police chief in Plano — as the interim chief of police when Robert Taylor retired as Amarillo’s top cop. Then he took the next step when he named Drain as the city’s permanent police chief. Not long after that, Childers quit and returned to Oklahoma City.

Drain, meanwhile, has distinguished himself in his few months on the job in Amarillo. Mayor Ginger Nelson brought out some key points regarding Drain’s tenure in her State of the City speech, noting some improvements that I want to look at briefly in this blog post.

One of them involves the return of community policing.

Former Police Chief Jerry Neal introduced to the city the notion of police officers making themselves more visible in the neighborhoods they patrol. He deployed bicycle patrols and instructed officers to engage in greater outreach to the communities they serve.

Then Neal retired. Taylor assumed command. Community policing disappeared. Then Taylor retired. In came Drain. Community policing has made a return.

As Nelson said Tuesday morning, the police department has instituted community policing programs in five neighborhoods. The program includes police substations where officers are able to do paperwork and perform other duties required of them.

The city has transformed the old North Heights YMCA into a community center now called the Charles Warford Center. It will include a police presence and will, according to Nelson, “provide a safe place for neighborhood children.”

It’s interesting to me that all this has occurred during Chief Drain’s time as head of the Amarillo Police Department.

I happen to be a big fan of community policing. It has worked in cities all across the nation. It puts police officers in more direct contact with the neighborhoods they serve. It helps remove the Us vs. The Man stigma that occasionally infects police relationships with the communities they serve.

Crime statistics suggest the city has work to do, according to Nelson, who said Tuesday that she intends to remove Amarillo from the list of “most dangerous cities in Texas.” She intends to make Amarillo known as one of the state’s “safest cities.”

I believe the mayor has a tremendous resource at her disposal in the form of Police Chief Ed Drain.

Mayor delivers on State of the City address

I had this gnawing feeling in my gut when I ventured this morning to the Amarillo Civic Center.

My gut was warning me of a possible happy-talk recitation from Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson who pledged to offer her view of the State of the City.

To her great credit, the mayor in effect told my gut to settle down. No need to worry about that. Instead, Nelson proceeded to tell a Grand Plaza Ballroom packed with attendees that the city has made great strides already, but has a good bit more distance to travel as it is “Getting it Done” for the city’s 200,000 residents.

Indeed, Nelson today put quite a Getting it Done-themed agenda looking forward on the record. She laid down a terrific benchmark to take forward next year — and for years after that.

This is the kind of speech that residents need to hear from the City Council’s presiding officer. Granted, under Amarillo’s voting plan, the mayor represents precisely the same citywide constituency as the other four council members; everyone on the council is elected at-large. The mayor is given what Theodore Roosevelt used to call the “bully pulpit” and this morning I heard Amarillo’s first-term mayor use that pulpit with effectiveness.

Much is going well in Amarillo, Nelson said. The city maintains a low municipal property tax rate; the city’s downtown district is moving forward and soon construction will begin on a $45.5 million downtown ballpark that will be home to a AA minor-league baseball franchise.

Amarillo’s police department is reinvigorating its community policing program under the guidance of Police Chief Ed Drain. The city is opening police substations in minority neighborhoods and putting officers in closer touch with the neighborhoods they are patrolling.

The city is working to improve North Heights living conditions and plans to focus soon on The Barrio and San Jacinto, Nelson said.

But we haven’t reached nirvana, the mayor cautioned.

Response times from police and firefighters need to improve, she said. The city needs to boost its educational level; only 22 percent of Amarillo residents have earned a bachelor’s degree or better, Nelson said. The city is ranked by the FBI as one of Texas’s “most dangerous cities,” according to Nelson.

“We have an epidemic of illegal dumping in our alleys,” Nelson said. There needs to be “better planning” between the city and the Texas Department of Transportation as it regards the enormous amount of road work that’s under way, the mayor said.

The city must do a better job of improving the physical appearance of Interstates 40 and 27 as they course through Amarillo, she said, although she noted that the city has instituted a new schedule for mowing the rights-of-way.

She urges residents to “buy local,” noting that business and sales tax revenue has slipped a bit in recent years. She laid the blame for the sale slippage on “online shopping.” Nelson said buying local ought to be an “easy” goal for residents to achieve if they intend to support their community.

It’s easy for elected municipal officials to tout the good news and give the challenges the short shrift when speaking to a public audience. Mayor Nelson did not do that this morning.

My major takeaway from her State of the City speech is that she set the table for more speeches that will communicate where the city continues to fall short … and where it is “Getting it Done.”

Now we have a design for The Ballpark

Yep. It looks like a ballpark.

Amarillo’s Local Government Corp. has approved a design concept for arguably the most significant downtown project of the past half-century.

It doesn’t have a name just yet. It’s going to be a multipurpose event venue, or MPEV. It’s also going to be a minor-league baseball venue, a ballpark. It’ll cost about $45.5 million to build.

It’s going to be home to a AA minor-league baseball franchise that is moving from San Antonio to Amarillo. Plans call for the ballpark to be finished by February 2019. They’ll toss the first pitch for the new baseball season in April 2019.

City Councilman Eddie Sauer — a member of the LGC — said he saw something “iconic” in the design that the LGC approved unanimously. “When I looked at it, I immediately saw something iconic,” Sauer told the Amarillo Globe-News. “I felt like I could see the Potter County Courthouse, the Santa Fe Building. It was special, I felt, with an eye for what we already had downtown.”

They’ve knocked down and scraped away the remnants of the old Coca-Cola distribution center that used to occupy the site along South Buchanan Street. I noticed some piles of dirt on the site the other day while driving downtown.

Plans call for work to begin shortly after the first of the year. Elmore hasn’t yet signed the lease agreement but that event reportedly is imminent.

I keep hearing the naysayers give raspberries to this project. They keep wondering aloud why the city is spending so much of its effort in reviving downtown.

I also keep wondering: How in the world is all this a negative development for Amarillo? Yes, there have been some hiccups and missteps along the way. The city got through them. The LGC negotiated a 30-year lease agreement with the owner of the baseball team that’s coming here. The team owner, Elmore Sports Group, is going to pay the city $400,000 annually to rent the ballpark. The city plans to pay for the ballpark with hotel occupancy tax revenue.

And in the bargain, the city’s downtown district will breathe deeply and is expected to throb with activity. We’re already seeing new urban residences being built; there will be new retail establishments; retail space along the ground floor of a shiny new parking garage is beginning to fill up; the just-opened Embassy Suites hotel figures to attract conventions to the Civic Center.

This is a bad thing for Amarillo? To my way of thinking, it’s pretty damn good.

MPEV contract signed? Done!

Someone will have to explain to me why the news out of Amarillo City Hall is somehow bad for the city.

It’s going to take a mighty stout argument to persuade me.

The City Council today announced that Elmore Sports Group, the outfit that owns the San Antonio Missions AA baseball team, has signed a 30-year lease agreement to play minor-league baseball at the new ballpark set to be built across the street from City Hall.

The city plans to pay for the $45.5 million multipurpose event venue with hotel occupancy tax revenue. Elmore will pay the city $400,000 annually to rent the ballpark.

They’re going to break ground on the MPEV in early 2018; they plan to finish the venue in time for the start of the 2019 baseball season.

Get your hot dogs and cold beer right here!

What a journey it has been — and what a journey that lies ahead.

And yet, there is a continual chorus from a cadre of soreheads that keeps casting the city’s downtown revival in negative terms.

It seems like a hundred years ago that Amarillo voters approved a citywide “non-binding referendum” on whether to support construction of the MPEV. The cost of the building in November 2015 — when the election occurred — had been pegged at $32 million. The cost inflated a bit after the ballots were counted, which brought out some howls around the city.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride, to be sure.

Voters elected a new council majority in the spring of 2015 and there was some discussion about the council slamming the brakes on the MPEV. To its credit, the new council majority heeded its better angels and allowed the vote to proceed.

Prior to all of that we got to witness the general managing contractor — an outfit named Wallace Bajjali — disintegrate in a spat between its principal owners. It was damn ugly! They left the city without an organization that was supposed to coordinate all the moving parts. Fortunately for Amarillo, the organization’s demise didn’t damage the city’s commitment to proceeding with the ballpark/MPEV.

But there was some turnover in some key municipal management positions. Melissa Dailey essentially was forced out of her job as head of Downtown Amarillo Inc., City Manager Jarret Atkinson quit over his inability to work with the new council majority and Amarillo Economic Development Corporation President Buzz David retired and moved out of town.

But the MPEV kept moving forward.

The Local Government Corporation was able to get a tentative agreement with the Missions, who wanted out of the Alamo City, which courted a AAA franchise.

And today, everyone signed on the dotted line.

Downtown Amarillo has made tremendous strides in the past half-dozen years. We now have a first-class convention hotel and parking garage across the street from the Civic Center. The city is able to lure conventions to the Civic Center. Business is booming along with construction of downtown residence construction.

Why in the world is all of this is a bad thing for Amarillo?

I want to restate what I believe is quite obvious: Every thriving city in America has virtually one thing in common. They all boast thriving downtown districts.

Amarillo has taken a big step toward a bright future.

Glad to see Confederate debate arrive

I am delighted to see that Amarillo, Texas — my current city of residence — has entered a serious debate that many other communities have already joined.

How do we remember those who fought for the Confederate States of America? Should we remember them? Should we forsake them?

This is an important discussion that erupted in August as a riot ensued in Charlottesville, Va. White supremacists, Klansmen and neo-Nazis marched to protest a plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park. Counter protesters emerged to challenge the first group. A young woman was killed when she was run over by a car allegedly driven by a young man with white supremacists sympathies.

The debate hasn’t really let up since.

Now it’s arrived in Amarillo. On Monday, the Amarillo public school system is going to discuss whether to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary School. The Robert E. Lee school situation presents an amazing irony, given that the school is located in a historically black neighborhood. Think of that for a moment: That school is named to honor a man who fought to destroy the United States. And for what purpose? To preserve the enslavement of black Americans!

There’s more discussion about the status of a Confederate soldier statue at Ellwood Park.

A pro-Confederate advocate is urging the City Council to “leave history alone.”

I come at this from a different angle. I am a transplant who chose to move to Amarillo in early 1995. My wife and I came here from Beaumont, Texas, where we lived for nearly 11 years prior to moving to the Panhandle. Indeed, we have witnessed our fair share of racial strife since we moved to Texas in 1984 from Oregon, where I was born and where my wife lived for many years.

Do we honor traitors?

I see the Confederacy as an aftertaste of the nation’s bloodiest armed conflict. The Civil War killed more than 600,000 Americans. Why did they fight? The Confederacy came into being as a protest against federal policy that the Confederate States believed interfered with their own right of self-determination.

Let’s not be coy about what those states wanted to preserve: One of their goals was to maintain slavery.

They separated from the United States of America and then went to war. Where I come from, I consider that an act of treason.

Is that the history we want to preserve? Is that what we honor?

I don’t have any particular concern about those who plaster Confederate flags on their bumpers or fly the Stars and Bars from their car radio antennae. That’s their call. Do I question why they do these things? Sure, but I don’t obsess over it.

Putting these symbols, though, on public property — be they parks or public schools — is another matter.

Preserving and honoring history is fine. I’m all for it. The Civil War, though, represents a dark and grim chapter in our nation’s history that should be remembered, studied and discussed. But do we honor that time? That’s why we have historical museums. We’ve got a damn fine historical museum in Canyon, at the West Texas A&M University campus.

So, let’s have this discussion in Amarillo about the Confederacy. Keep it civil and high-minded.

No messing with library hours

Amarillo’s new City Council is in the midst of budget discussions. It’s an annual ritual the city’s governing board must endure.

I got word the other day that the city was considering a reduction in a valuable service it provides to its residents. I’m talking about the public library.

Now I hear that the cuts are off the table. At least for now. I hope they stay off the table and that the city doesn’t mess with a service that, according to the library’s 2016 annual report, provides a tremendous return on the investment taxpayers make.

The plan, as I understood, was to close the North, East and Northwest branches on Saturday. The city was considering a return to its 2009 weekly schedule.

The savings? It is reported to be around $92,000 annually.

The council is now turning elsewhere to save some money. Good deal.

Let’s put the library expenditure $3.8 million into some perspective. According to the Amarillo Municipal Library annual report, the city received $30.5 million in ancillary benefit in return. The return on that investment? $26.7 million. Not a bad return, right?

As I understand it, the library provides a valuable place for Internet research for residents who might not have Internet services in their homes. They visit the branches around Amarillo and use the public computers to do research or to assist them in finding answers to myriad questions they might have. Indeed, the library reports that 72,215 persons used the Internet in FY 2016.

Thousands of children participate in the summer reading program; 6,985 residents logged on to the library’s Wi-Fi network; the library loaned out 57,643 audio books, CDs and other media; it loaned out 307,904 DVDs. All this occurred during FY 2016.

My point is that the public library provides a valuable public service. The City Council also serves the same public.

Surely, council members want to ensure that the public they serve — and which uses the library network — remains educated and informed on the world around us.

My hope is that council members continue to keep faith with the public, the people for whom they work and who they serve.

I also hope reason will continue to prevail at City Hall.

Older residents need to be heard, too

Once upon a time — not too many years ago — a so-called “movement” arose in Amarillo that purported to speak for young residents.

It was called the Amarillo Millennial Movement. Its mission was to promote a downtown entertainment venue that ostensibly would be a reason for young Amarillo residents to continue living here. The venue was put to a vote in November 2015 referendum — and it passed.

AMM then vanished. It’s gone. It was a flash in the pan.

Two years later, the city is now targeting the other end of the age spectrum. Older residents are getting to have their feelings known about what they want their city to provide. The old folks don’t have a catchy name, but they are being heard by City Hall, where staffers are beginning the process of developing an action to assist elderly residents in finding ways to spend their time.

The multipurpose event venue, by the way, will be built. Construction will begin soon. The AMM no longer exists, but the MPEV is likely to become a big part of elderly residents’ lives in Amarillo, too.

Don’t you love the symmetry?

There was a meeting this morning at the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission conference room downtown. It was called by Linda Pitner, senior services coordinator for the city. The meeting comprised a focus group of mostly retired men who live in Amarillo. Full disclosure: I was one of those focus group members.

The meeting was called to collect ideas, concerns and suggestions from these individuals on an array of issues, which included: what we do in our spare time; the city’s offering of activities geared toward “active adults”; what residents should expect of the city.

It was a lively discussion. It produced a lot of ideas for the facilitator, Jill Jackson Ledford, who came here from Charleston, S.C., to assist Pitner in the development of the potential action plan. The discussion covered bike trails, mass transit, the MPEV and other downtown improvements; it included discussion of the role of community churches in people’s lives and also included suggestions on how the city can develop more effective “clearing houses” to disseminate information to city residents.

One forum participant, retired Amarillo College President Paul Matney, told of how the Amarillo Senior Citizens Center offers the usual array of traditional activities for elderly residents. He cited bingo, quilting, line dancing and dominoes. Those “active adults,” Matney said, need more than that; they deserve more than those kinds of static activities.

Pitner told the group that men traditionally do not respond well to surveys. Amarillo’s female residents did respond to surveys sent to them, Pitner said. Thus, the men came together today for this focus group.

Where does the city go from here? What happens to the information gathered? The facilitator is going to compile a detailed report. She’ll present it to Pitner, who then will take it to the city manager, who will present it to the City Council.

It’s a long-term process. The current council might act on it. Or it could hand it off to the next council that will take office after the May 2019 municipal election. The decision ultimately will come from council members on how — or whether — to implement any and/or all of the elements contained within the report.

I do not expect this effort to meet the same fate as the Amarillo Millennial Movement. That is, my sincere hope is that it doesn’t disappear into oblivion.

Thanks, Bob Cowell, for your service to Amarillo

Bob Cowell has long wanted a city manager’s job.

Today he got one. It’s in Roanoke, Va., where that city’s council has voted 7-0 to hire the Amarillo deputy city manager as that community’s next top municipal administrator.

I’ll stipulate up front that I do not know Cowell personally. I know only of him by reputation. What I have heard about Cowell is that he held the city’s administrative staff together during a time of tumult, which I suppose might be enough of a selling point to his new employers in Roanoke.

A friend of mine in Roanoke gave me a heads up earlier in the day about Cowell’s hiring and asked me about him. I only can speak around the edges about Cowell; I don’t have much intimate knowledge of how well he does his job at Amarillo City Hall.

But as I told my friend, the managing editor of the Roanoke Times — and a former executive editor of the Amarillo Globe-News, Lee Wolverton — I know that Cowell was near the center of power when all hell was breaking loose at Amarillo City Hall.

He was there when former City Manager Jarrett Atkinson resigned in 2015 after the City Council election produced a new majority that didn’t think much of Atkinson’s work as manager. He also was there during the tumultuous time when Terry Childers came aboard as the interim city manager; Childers ended up walking away after he called a constituent a “stupid son of a b****.”

Cowell can take credit for helping hold the city administrative staff together during all that trouble.

He continued to serve the city under new City Manager Jared Miller’s leadership — and was a finalist for the city manager’s job in San Marcos, where Miller was working when he took the Amarillo job.

So, with that, Amarillo will have to replace a valuable municipal government hand.

Good luck and Godspeed, Bob Cowell.

More frequent mowing? It’s a start, City Hall

Amarillo City Councilman Eddy Sauer posted an encouraging message on Facebook, which reads in part:

At Tuesday’s Council meeting we signed an agreement with TXDOT to increase mowings and weed control on I-40 and I-27. Improving curb appeal is a huge priority for me and the Council. While I’d like to take the credit, this is the result of hard work by city staff and our local TXDOT engineers and coordinators. I am very pleased and proud of how hard our staff is working to embrace the new council’s vision of moving our city forward. We are truly blessed and will continue to work hard to fulfill the commitments we’ve made to our residents. 

It’s a start, councilman.

The city is setting aside some additional money to cover the cost of the increased mowing. But to those who have expressed concern about the appearance of the interstate thoroughfares coursing through the city — such as yours truly — there remains a good bit more work to do.

Mayor Ginger Nelson laid out a detailed platform that included a highway beautification plank in it. I believe she intends to follow through on that pledge.

There ought to be a strategy laid out that enables the city and the state to team up on a landscaping program that dresses up the I-40/27 interchange. I recall when the Texas highway department rebuilt the interchange, flipping the east-west bound lanes with the north-south lanes. It was a huge undertaking. The state decorated the overpasses with colors that mirrored Palo Duro Canyon’s walls.

Then it let the ground under the interchange to become choked by weeds.

I applaud the City Council’s decision to run the mowers more frequently along the interstate rights-of-way. There’s more to do.

Highways getting some attention?

Welcome aboard, Amarillo City Councilman Eddy Sauer, in the campaign to dress up our public rights-of-way.

Sauer recent went to Waco and then posted this item on social media: “I’m committed to cleaning up our highways and making our city more inviting. The I-40 and I-27 corridors are great marketing tools for Amarillo. We have a great city and a great opportunity and we need to take advantage.”

He was struck, apparently, by the appearance of a sign greeting motorists entering the city.

I drive through the I-40/27 interchange roughly once a week and my hair still bristles when I notice its shabby appearance. A former Texas Department of Transportation actually told me once that the state opted to let “natural” flora grow rather than spend money to dress it up and make it more visually appealing. I believe I laughed out loud when he told me that; he took offense at my reaction.

Mayor Ginger Nelson has vowed to work out an agreement between the city and the state for a joint maintenance project that dresses up these rights-of-way.

The mayor now appears to have at least one ally on the City Council. Maybe more of them will emerge. One can hope.