Tag Archives: Amarillo City Council

Amarillo goes smoke-free … without a city ordinance

I feel like revisiting an issue that some years ago got a lot of Amarillo, Texas, residents all fired up.

I am referring to smoking indoors.

Over the years I have discovered something curious — and quite welcome — about the city where my wife and I live. It’s damn near impossible to find an eating establishment that still allows indoor smoking.

I haven’t been to every single such establishment in the city, so this isn’t a declaration of fact. It is a perception that has dawned on me.

City residents twice in recent years rejected municipal referendums calling for a citywide ban on indoor smoking. The calls for a city ordinance came from the medical community that sought to mandate that business owners order customers to keep their smokes unlit while they ate and drank indoors.

I worked during at least one of those elections for the Amarillo Globe-News. Our newspaper’s editorial policy opposed the mandate. We stated our preference for business owners to do the right thing without being forced to do so by the government.

I gritted my teeth while writing editorials taking that position. My personal preference — and it remains so to this day — was that the city should put residents’ health first. Second-hand smoke is dangerous to those who inhale it. What’s more, a former city councilman — a physician — once admitted to me that his personal preference was to enact a smoke-free ordinance, but that he didn’t want to be the sole vote on the five-member governing panel.

But now, years later, my wife and I are still eating out on occasion. We have discovered that none of the establishments we frequent allow indoor smoking. Indeed, some of these businesses — which formerly allowed it — have gone smoke-free on their own. Imagine that! It turns out that the newspaper’s opposition to was on the mark.

A couple of well-known places along Historic Route 66 have gone smoke-free. I interviewed one business owner while working part-time for KFDA NewsChannel 10 and learned that although she opposed the ordinance she was adamantly opposed to smoking inside her restaurant.

This is all my way of paying tribute to those business owners who have stayed true to their conscience while improving the health climate for their customers.

I am pretty certain some readers of this blog are going to remind me that there remain some joints around the city that still allow smoke to billow from stogies and cigarettes.

Fine. I just can’t find them. I prefer it that way.

Is graffiti abatement still on the city’s agenda?

Paul Harpole became Amarillo’s mayor in 2011 after campaigning on a vow to rid the city of graffiti that was scarring private property.

He orchestrated the launch of a program aimed at cleaning up buildings that were being “tagged” by gang members and would-be gang members.

Then he left the mayor’s office earlier this year. The current mayor, Ginger Nelson, campaigned on a multi-faceted platform of issues ranging from economic development, to fiscal accountability, to beautification of our public rights-of-way. There are plenty of other issues, too.

I don’t recall reading about graffiti abatement as I pored through Nelson’s list of municipal priorities.

So, my question is: Did the graffiti abatement program vanish when Paul Harpole walked away from the mayor’s office?

I hope that’s not the case.

One mayor’s effort to rid the city of a nuisance should become part of the next mayor’s agenda as well. Don’t you think?

Harpole stays the course on graffiti battle

I thought Harpole had the right idea when he decided to take on the “artists” who deem it OK to deface other people’s property.

Mayor Nelson appears quite dedicated to her vision for making the city a better, more attractive place for its 200,000 residents. I believe part of her overall strategy needs to include her immediate predecessor’s aim to rid the city of graffiti.

Amarillo poised to become a baseball city again

It is a virtual lead-pipe cinch that I won’t be living in Amarillo when they toss the first pitch at the city’s new downtown ballpark.

The city’s new AA minor-league baseball team will commence its initial season in April 2019 in a shiny new 4,500-seat venue.

The journey toward that end has been fraught with some difficulty, some apprehension and, yes, a bit of controversy. It’s going to come to fruition, which makes me happy for the city my wife and will depart in due course.

I will acknowledge that I was not a regular attendee at the independent league games played by teams that had various names. I did attend a few games at the dump once known as the Dilla Villa, in honor of the Amarillo Dillas who were playing baseball there when my wife and I arrived here in early 1995.

They morphed into another team, which morphed again. Then the outfit that ran that team decided to split its home season between Amarillo and Grand Prairie. That lasted one year. Now they’re gone.

The ballpark, also known as the multipurpose event venue, was conceived by local officials and business leaders while all that nonsense was occurring at the rat hole that passes for a ballpark at the Tri-State Fairgrounds. They had a number of public hearings. They put the issue to a non-binding citywide referendum in November 2015 — and it passed.

The price tag for the referendum was pegged at $32 million. It grew to $45 million. They knocked down the old Coca-Cola distribution center, and relocated that business elsewhere.

Has it been smooth sailing? Not at all. I had my own doubts about whether the Local Government Corp. could pull this deal off. The City Council support for the LGC’s work seemed a bit tenuous. Then this past spring, voters decided to elect a new council.

Let us not forget that the general managing contractor, Wallace Bajjali, vaporized along the way in a dispute between the firm’s principal owners. It didn’t deter the progress toward landing the affiliated AA franchise.

The Elmore Group, which owns the San Antonio Missions, is now going to relocate that team to Amarillo; San Antonio will get a AAA team that will relocate to the Alamo City from Colorado Springs.

Meantime, life is good for diehard baseball fans in Amarillo. They’re going to get to watch a professionally run baseball team play ball in a sparkling new venue.

I wish them all well. This journey has given me a mild case of heartburn along the way. It’s all good now as they prepare to break ground on the ballpark.

I intend to watch it grow and will be cheering from afar when they toss out that first pitch.

Just wondering: Amarillo Matters … where is it?

A political action group emerged from nowhere earlier this year. It called itself Amarillo Matters. Its mission, as I understand it, was to elect a slate of candidates to the City Council.

It succeeded. This past spring, voters flipped the entire five-member council, electing five newbies. Amarillo Matters then seemingly packed its bags, and its members went back to whatever they were doing before they formed this political action committee.

They were mostly successful businessmen and women. Their agenda included electing individuals who shared their pro-business tilt. Hey, I have no problem with that.

There’s been some success in the months since the new council members took office. Chief among them is the landing of that AA minor-league baseball franchise that is relocating to Amarillo from San Antonio and will play baseball at the new ballpark that will be built in downtown Amarillo; they’ll toss the first pitch in April 2019.

That’s a big deal, man.

But what has become of Amarillo Matters? It’s no longer garnering headlines, or any discussion on local broadcast media. I looked at its website this evening. It’s still up. AM has a link where one can contribute money; I am not giving them any dough.

I’ve written plenty about them already:

http://highplainsblogger.com/?s=Amarillo+Matters

Given that I am unplugged from most of what’s going on at City Hall these days, I am left to use this blog to pose questions about some of the community’s key players.

I consider Amarillo Matters to be an important cog in the city’s civic machinery. I know many of the folks who formed the PAC’s leadership team earlier this year. I respect them, too.

I hope it hasn’t become what the Amarillo Millennial Movement turned out to be: a flash in the pan. AMM formed to promote the approval of the ballpark in the November 2015 municipal referendum. The measure passed — and AMM then vanished, vaporized, disappeared. Yes, I am aware that the AMM comprised essentially one individual, a young woman who moved to Fort Worth. But you get my point, yes?

Amarillo Matters, where are you and what are you doing to make sure that that Amarillo still, um, matters?

Renaming buildings and streets? Follow a simple formula

Amarillo city officials are considering some ordinances related to building and street renaming.

There’s been a bit of controversy about that in recent times, with Amarillo public school officials considering whether to rename an elementary school that currently is named after Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whose participation in the Civil War has come under scrutiny of late.

Hey, I have one recommendation for Amarillo City Hall: Whatever you decide, be sure to avoid naming a building or street after a living individual.

No living honorees

The city named its administration building in 2014 after the late City Commissioner Jim Simms; it named its international airport after Rick Husband, the astronaut who died aboard the shuttle Columbia in 2003; Amarillo has named part of a street after Justin Scherlen, a police officer who died in the line of duty.

Cities that name structures or streets after living individuals run the risk of being embarrassed by the “honored” individual. The most prominent example that comes to my mind involves Pete Rose, the former Cincinnati Reds baseball great who got a street named in his honor in Cincy; then Rose got ensnared in a gambling scandal that resulted in his being banned for life from induction in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. The city took Rose’s name off the street.

So, go ahead, City Hall, with considering this ordinance. I have no problem with the city having a policy for this process — as long as it involves individuals who have left this world.

Good luck, 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.