Tag Archives: Amarillo City Hall

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.

Amarillo’s downtown no longer recognizable

I made what I consider to be a startling discovery in downtown Amarillo, Texas.

After parking my car on a lot behind the brand new Embassy Suites hotel, I walked along Fillmore Street and turned the corner onto Sixth Avenue. I glanced across the street at a row of mostly empty storefronts along a shiny new wall — which I realized after a second or two was the north face of a new parking garage.

I glanced eastward toward the Civic Center just to be sure I hadn’t become disoriented. There it was. The Civic Center restored my bearings.

The discovery? It is that downtown Amarillo bears next to zero resemblance to the district I’ve come to know during my 22 years living in this Texas Panhandle community.

The Embassy Suites is now open for business. The parking garage is finished; indeed, I saw vehicles parked inside the structure.

My reason for venturing downtown this evening — in the rain — was to attend a retirement reception for a longtime friend and source I relied on when I worked for the Amarillo Globe-News. Gary Pitner is retiring as head of the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission; I’ll have more to say about Gary in a later blog post.

My point with this post is to take note of the immense change that has occurred in downtown Amarillo — and the change that is still occurring.

Downtown Amarillo’s evolution is a highly positive event. I sort of think of it as a butterfly that emerges from some sort of cocoon. I don’t want to sound mawkish here, but that moment as I made the turn toward the Embassy Suites door also was a realization that the evolution is real.

There’s much more to come, of course. That ballpark is going to be built across the street from City Hall. They’ll take about a year to build a 4,500-seat multipurpose event venue. By April 2019, the MPEV will be done and they’ll toss out the first pitch for a AA minor-league baseball season.

I’m beginning to think when that time arrives that downtown Amarillo will be even less recognizable then that it is today.

That will be a very good thing.

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.

Why run on partisan labels at City Hall?

A headline in today’s New York Times caught my attention and gave me a moment’s pause.

It reads: “Bill de Blasio — the best Democratic choice for mayor.”

It has occurred to me on more than one occasion during the many years I reported and commented on politics wherever I have lived and worked that it makes no sense for municipal candidates to run on partisan tickets.

Why in the world does it matter if a mayor or city council member is a Democrat or a Republican? Someone has to explain to me the validity of forcing these folks to run under the banner of any political party. Do elected municipal officials tend to the needs of constituents based on their party affiliation? They had better not.

I get that NYC is a heavily Democratic city. But if someone calls City Hall with a complaint about, oh, a barking dog or a troublesome pothole or a street light that needs repair, does the city staffer ask the caller whether he or she is a Democrat or Republican?

I realize these are issues to be settled within each community. Sitting out here in Amarillo, Texas, I shouldn’t really care about the politics of New York City. And, in fact, I don’t … not really.

It just sticks in my craw a little bit that some cities in America actually elect municipal officials on partisan ballots.

I prefer the way we do it in Amarillo, or in Beaumont, where we lived for a time before moving to the Panhandle, or in Portland, Ore., the city of my birth. They all elect their governing officials on non-partisan ballots.

I remember one year in Amarillo when a challenger to the incumbent mayor sought to urge “good Republicans” to vote for her. We slapped her down hard at the Amarillo Globe-News, where I worked as editorial page editor. She lost to the incumbent.

I’ve actually argued that county-wide offices need not be partisan, either. Someone needs to explain to me how a tax assessor-collector, or county clerk, or country treasurer, or district clerk, or a sheriff, or district attorney does his or her job on the basis of what’s “good for the party.”

We seem to elect everyone in Texas. We even elect constables — which in my view is the most useless public office any county can employ. I’ll save that argument for another blog post, though. Even constables, for crying out loud, are elected on partisan ballots.

And don’t even get me started on why we elect judges as Democrats and Republicans. I detest partisan election of judges perhaps most of all, given that so many good men and women are tossed off the bench simply because they belong to the “wrong political party.” It’s happened to stellar Democrats in Texas during the past two or three decades; and it happened to equally stellar Republicans back when Democrats were the party in power.

There. My morning rant against partisan politics is over. Nothing will change. I do feel better, though.

Do we call it ‘MPEV,’ or something else?

They’re going to start construction soon on Amarillo’s newest attraction soon.

It’ll be built downtown, across the street from City Hall. It’s going to be home to a AA baseball team that’s moving here from San Antonio. The team intends to open its 2019 season at the place that’s come to be known colloquially as the “MPEV.”

MPEV stands for multipurpose event venue. It’s a descriptive term, given that it also will play host to many other community events other than baseball.

Some residents refer to it as The Ballpark. Critics have attached unflattering names to the structure. “Boondoggle” comes to mind. I don’t consider the construction and opening of the MPEV as a negative occurrence.

It’s going to cost about $40 million. Amarillo’s voters approved a non-binding referendum in November 2015 on the MPEV back when the price was a “mere” $32 million.

Here’s a thought, however, on what kind of name ought to go on this new venue. Why not honor someone by putting his or her name on the building?

I’ll begin the discussion with this name: Tony Gwynn.

Who is this man? He once played baseball in Amarillo, back when the city was home to the Gold Sox. The Gold Sox were a farm team for the San Diego Padres, which interestingly enough, happens to be the Major League Baseball team affiliated with the new outfit that’s coming here. He only played 23 games in Amarillo in 1982.

Gwynn eventually got called up to the Big Leagues. He did quite well. He compiled a .338 lifetime batting average, got more than 3,000 base hits, played in a World Series with the Padres — and comported himself with class, grace, good humor and dedication during his storied MLB career. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot.

Gwynn died in 2014 at the age of 54, which means there is no way he can sully his stellar reputation.

Tony Gwynn Park. It has a nice ring. Don’t you think?

‘Free’ speech gets drowned out … good!

They called themselves the “Free Speech Movement.” They planned to stage a big rally in Boston, but got drowned out by others who were having none of what this movement had to say.

The “Free Speech” folks said they disavowed the hate speech that’s become the talk of the nation. But thousands of counter protesters showed up to swallow up the “Free Speech” crowd.

It appears that advance knowledge of some of the speakers slated to talk alarmed community residents, which triggered the big counter protest. They were concerned about what they considered to be “veiled bigotry.” One big difference between this gathering and the one that erupted in Charlottesville this past weekend is that no one got hurt; there was no riot.

This all sounds familiar to yours truly.

In 2006, the Ku Klux Klan came to Amarillo to have a rally in front of City Hall. The city granted the KKK the permit they needed. The police came out in force. Amarillo PD deployed many officers, as did the Potter County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety. The police set up an effective barrier that kept the crowd of onlookers away from the Klansmen.

At the moment the Klan leaders were set to start addressing the gathering in front of City Hall, a parade of counter protesters came marching onto the parking lot. They were loud, man! They were banging cymbals, blowing horns, beating drums, yelling at the top of their lungs.

I don’t recall, 11 years later, what the Klan’s message was on that warm summer day. The haters couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

I couldn’t have been prouder of the way our community reacted to the Klan’s presence in our midst.

The most fascinating encounter I witnessed occurred right next to me. It involved then-Amarillo Police Chief Jerry Neal and a Klan member. Neal was there in full cop regalia: dress blues and all the hardware that beat cops wear when they’re on patrol … if you get my drift. The Klansman asked the chief, “Can I ask you something?”

Neal’s response was brusque and right to the point: “No. You can’t. Now, get away from me.”

What happened today in Boston had plenty of precedent. It should continue for as long as hate groups — or those aligned with them — believe they have license to spread their bigoted message.

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.

Patrick misfires on municipal government critique

Oh, that Dan Patrick. He needs a lesson in Civics 101.

The Texas lieutenant governor has now laid blame for “all the problems” facing America at the feet of mayors, the vast majority of whom he says are Democrats. Oh, did I mention that Patrick is a Republican? There. I just did.

Patrick told Fox Business News that Democrats have made such a mess of municipal government that cities’ woes are spilling over into other walks of life. He said citizens are happy with governments at the state level. The cities? They’ve gone to hell, thanks to Democrats, according to the sometimes-bombastic lieutenant governor.

Shall we offer the lesson now? Sure, why not?

I’ll concede that there are pockets of municipal dysfunction around the country that have occurred under the watch of mayors elected as Democrats. Is that an exclusively Democratic problem? No. It is not. Republican-run cities have fiscal and crime issues with which they must deal, too. They have potholes that need to be filled and street signals that need to function properly.

What’s more, many thousands of mayors and city council members are elected on non-partisan ballots. Partisanship has no place in municipal governance. Cities with home-rule charters are governed by those who set aside partisan differences and who seek to set policies based on community interests, not based on whether they have positive or negative impacts on certain neighborhoods based on partisan affiliation or leaning.

I’m reminded at this moment of an Amarillo mayoral race some years ago in which a challenger to then-Mayor Kel Seliger called on all “good Republicans” to elect her instead of the incumbent. Mary Alice Brittain sent out pamphlets imploring GOP voters to turn out that spring to oust the mayor.

I was working at the time as editorial page editor of the Amarillo Globe-News and we reminded our readers to turn their backs on the ignorant rants of that challenger, given that Amarillo is one of most Texas cities governed by non-partisan mayors and city council members.

Seliger won re-election that year by a huge margin; Brittain disappeared and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Dan Patrick is entitled to espouse his partisan bias. I understand he’s a faithful Republican officeholder. He’s got a tough job running the Texas Senate, which is meeting at the moment with the House of Representatives in a special session of the Legislature.

But, c’mon Dan! Knock off the broad-brush blame game against local government officials who are doing their best to cope with the problems facing every city in America regardless of party affiliation.

As the Texas Tribune reports: But “the fact that city elections are nonpartisan is one of the greatest things about city government,” said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. “We like to say that potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican… it costs the same amount regardless of ideology.” 

Patrick should know better. I fear he does not.