Tag Archives: Potter County

City takes an astonishing turn

downtown

Maybe I’m easily amazed.

Whatever.

My amazement is focused on what I have perceived to be a remarkable about-face at Amarillo City Hall. It involves the city’s focus on its downtown business and entertainment district. It has gone from a hands-off public policy to a definite hands-on approach.

I am utterly convinced the entire city will reap the benefit.

My wife and I arrived in Amarillo in early 1995 to start a new life — and to continue a life we started when we arrived in Texas 11 years earlier.

We saw a downtown district that was, to put it charitably, in a state of suspended animation. Downtown was in shabby condition.¬†In addition to the Barfield Building and Herring Hotel — two significant structures that have been rotting ever since — the city had the vacant Santa Fe Building with which to contend.

Then the light bulb flickered on at the Potter County Courthouse. County Judge Arthur Ware finagled a deal to purchase the Santa Fe Building for $400,000. He then secured a state historic preservation grant to pay for a renovation of the magnificent 12-story structure. The project was completed — and the county moved some of its offices into the Santa Fe Building.

That might be considered the start of downtown Amarillo’s revival.

City Hall’s outlook, though, remained standoffish. Mayors Kel Seliger and Trent Sisemore seemed uninterested in getting involved directly with downtown revival. They preferred to let private business take the lead. The city might lend support — if it felt a project merited it.

Little happened over nearly a decade.

The pace has accelerated tremendously in the past decade. How did it come about? I believe it has been the result of a more activist City Hall approach.

The city launched a Strategic Action Plan, which produced a vision for the downtown district. It created Downtown Amarillo Inc. Center City became even more of a player. The city created the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone. The Amarillo Economic Development Corp. invested sale tax funds to help some of these projects along.

Meanwhile, private businesses — apparently sensing the energy coming from City Hall — began a series of tangible improvement projects. New bank branches went up. A convenience store was built. The old Fisk Building was turned into a business hotel.

The momentum was building.

Then came the Embassy Suites hotel project. Plans took root to build a parking garage. And, oh yes, we have that multipurpose event venue/ballpark.

Along the way, some folks started expressing anger. They didn’t like the way the city was proceeding with some of these projects. They alleged “secrecy,” which I believe was a dubious accusation.

Sure, we had some serious misfires. Wallace Bajjali — the master development firm¬†hired to oversee downtown’s resurrection — went kaput overnight. That, too, fueled the anger. Well, WB is long gone.

But the movement is continuing.

The City Council has gone through a serious makeover. There have been some more hiccups, mostly created by tensions among some of the council members.

Is all this amazing? Yes it is.

I do not want the city to turn away from its new course.

The city is going to ask voters to approve more than $300 million in infrastructure improvements, just as it asked voters to approve a referendum to build that MPEV downtown.

There are times when local government can step in — and step up — when it perceives a need.

Amarillo saw the need to boost its downtown district. Believe this: When this project is done — as every U.S. community that has taken this kind of proactive approach has learned —¬†the entire city will reap the reward.

Next to zero interest in politics? Perhaps

horse race

Incumbent officeholders hate it when I say this, but that’s too bad. I’ll keep saying it.

Hardly ever do they deserve a free ride to re-election. However, that’s what happens with mind-numbing regularity in many of our local communities.

Let’s look at Randall County, for an example.

I mailer came to my house this week. It’s from Paula Hicks, who’s running for the Precinct 4 constable seat occupied by Chris Johnson. She points out that her¬†race is the only contested one in the county.

Wouldn’t you know it. The only contested¬†race in the county where I live¬†involves the one office I care next to nothing about. We shouldn’t even have¬†constables in Randall County, but we do and this year the¬†office is being contested.

What about the rest of the¬†county offices? They’re all uncontested. Even the tax assessor-collector’s office, which is¬†being vacated by a long-time incumbent, Sharon Hollingsworth,¬†doesn’t have a contested race.

Why don’t candidates¬†jump in? Why don’t incumbents get challenged by those who think they can¬†do a better job?

Are they happy with the job being done? Don’t they want¬†the publicity that goes with seeking public office?¬†Do they fear offending someone?

That isn’t the case north of the county line, in Potter County?

The county attorney, Scott Brumley, has a challenger; the 47th District attorney, Randall Sims, has one too. A county commissioner, Leon Church in Precinct 3, is getting a challenge.

But that’s it. Just three incumbents from the entire slate¬†of candidates have to¬†fight to keep their office.

It’s not that I want all the incumbents to get tossed out on their ears. It’s just that I’ve long thought that incumbents build a public record and they ought to face demands that they defend those records.

The past few Amarillo municipal elections have been lively affairs. This past year saw two incumbent City Council members defeated and a third newcomer elected to a seat that had been vacated. I wasn’t happy with the outcome, but I did enjoy listening to the community debate.

Challengers who rise up from the masses need not be negative. They merely need to say how they intend to perform the duties differently from the individual who’s already in the office. Better? Sure.

I get that incumbents don’t like hearing that from folks like me. They think¬†I sit out here in the peanut gallery just relishing the chance to toss¬†the proverbial rotten tomato at them.

Not true. I just like a robust debate. Especially at the local level, where government — and the people who¬†we choose to run¬†it — make decisions that affect our lives most directly.

 

 

Constables: Who needs ’em?

Constable_Flag

Chris Johnson’s campaign signs are popping up all over southern Amarillo.

He is spending a good bit of dough seeking re-election to one of the more curious public offices I’ve ever seen.

He won’t get my vote. It’s not that I have anything against Johnson. I don’t know him. I’ve never had any dealings with him.

He’s a constable in Randall County, Texas.

Constable. What is that? He’s a politician/cop whose duties include (a) serving papers, such as subpoenas and summonses and (b) providing security for justice of the peace courts.

Let me stipulate a couple of things here.

One is that I’ve had a longstanding antipathy toward the very idea of electing constables. Why? We don’t need them. My wish would be for the Texas Legislature to propose a state constitutional amendment to do away with the office. The duties done by the constable can be done by sheriff’s deputies or municipal police officers.

But no-o-o-o-o! We’ve got to have another elected official assigned to do these things.

The other thing is that during my nearly 32 years living in Texas, I’ve voted for one man as a constable. Jeff Lester used to hold the office that Johnson now occupies. Lester, who retired recently from the Amarillo Police Department, ran for the office with one pledge: to get rid of it.

He held the title of constable, but didn’t do anything. He didn’t get paid. He referred all the duties to the sheriff’s department. He wanted to keep the office inactive long enough to enable the Randall County Commissioners Court to abolish the office, which state law empowers it to do after a period of time had lapsed.

Then came reapportionment after the 2010 census had been completed. The county had to redraw political boundaries based on shifts in population as required by state law. County commissioners then reapportioned Lester out of the precinct he had served as constable, meaning he couldn’t run for re-election.

That’s when Johnson ran — and won.

I must reiterate that I have nothing personal against Constable Johnson. It’s the office he holds that bugs the bejeebers out of me.

I get that some counties have a¬†need for constables. The experience in Randall and Potter counties, though, has been spotty at best. We’ve elected constables who haven’t done anything while drawing their salaries. One Potter County constable — who’s since resigned — would suit up in all the gear and the requisite hardware just to serve legal papers.

I’m digging deep trying to remember a time I’ve ever heard of a constable in this part of the state making an arrest, or being involved in a high-profile criminal activity. Have I been asleep all these years?

So, I guess that Constable Johnson will get re-elected this year. Good for him. I’ll kick in my piddling portion to help pay his salary, although I won’t like doing it.

In this era when people say they’re sick of government inefficiency, I keep wondering: Where is the anger over paying for a superfluous law enforcement entity that — from my vantage point — need not exist?

We have plenty of county and municipal law enforcement personnel who are quite capable of doing the constables’ job.

 

Potter County ballpark: not worth any more effort

baseball

So … I’m visiting with a health care professional and the discussion about the topic at hand comes to an end.

The conversation then turns to the city’s effort to build a multipurpose event venue downtown — which includes the ballpark that would be the home field for a minor-league baseball team.

My acquaintance — who favors the downtown MPEV — then mentions the Potter County Memorial Stadium next to the Tri-State Fairgrounds. “I’ve heard the argument that we should pump more money into that ballpark,” he says. I shake my head and tell him, “But it’s a dump!”

He agrees, adding that the Potter County already has pumped too much money into the ballpark as it is and then he broaches a subject that few individuals seem¬†willing to address: It’s in a depressed neighborhood that is unlikely to see any kind of revival any time soon.

What’s the point, he asks, of putting more money into that ballpark when the city hopes to build a new venue downtown?

Bingo! Presto! Enough said! Those are the thoughts that banged around my noggin at that very moment.

The Potter County-owned ballpark, in the words of retired Amarillo College President Paul Matney, “at the end of its life.” The clock should be ticking on that venue. Its best days are long gone. It is held together with the proverbial equivalent of rubber bands, wire, duct tape and perhaps a staple or two.

Matney made the case all over Amarillo as he campaigned successfully on behalf of the non-binding citywide referendum that voters approved on Nov. 3. The MPEV, with its current price tag of around $32 million, will be built eventually — at least that’s my hope.

Let’s no longer discuss the Potter County Memorial Stadium as having any kind of meaningful future for the county, or the city, or any other entity.

The county has put enough money into it already.

It’s time to look to the future.

 

Matney gets fired up about MPEV

matney

It’s next to impossible to listen to Paul Matney make the case for whatever project¬†on his radar and not feel some sense of buy-in.

I’ve known Matney for as long as I’ve lived in Amarillo. That’s more than 20 years. I have listened to his pitch for Amarillo College, which he led as president until he retired a year ago. His AC spiel was polished, passionate and on-point.

Matney has turned that passion now to a Nov. 3 non-binding referendum facing Amarillo voters. You’ve heard about it, yes?

It’s the multipurpose event venue, which is part of the three-pronged “catalyst project” that’s been developed for the city’s downtown business district.

Matney broke out of his chains today while speaking to the Rotary Club of Amarillo.

The MPEV includes the much-discussed “ballpark.” The ballot measure asks voters if they want the MPEV built as it’s been presented.

Matney’s view? Not just yes, but hell yes! (OK, he didn’t say it quite that way, but that was the message.)

It’s a $45 million project, combined with a parking garage. The city will issue revenue bonds to pay for the MPEV construction and will retire the debt with hotel occupancy tax revenue collected by visitors who come to Amarillo.

City¬†and business leaders are breaking ground Friday on a $45 million convention hotel to be built downtown; the developer of the Embassy Suites is footing the bill for the hotel’s construction … and that, too, got Matney’s juices flowing today.

Matney believes in the MPEV and predicted that its construction will put Amarillo on the “baseball radar” for an organization looking to locate a team. Oh, but what’s wrong with the Potter County-owned ballpark at the fairgrounds? Matney didn’t say it precisely, but I’ll say it here: It’s a dump.

Matney did say that Potter County shouldn’t spend another nickel on improvements to that stadium. Amen to that, Mr. President.

Matney presented his brief remarks as someone “who was born here, educated here, lives here, worked in higher education here, has retired here, will die here and will be buried here.”

The MPEV, he said, could play host to a wide variety of events that could attract thousands of folks into the downtown district.

So, the campaign for and against the MPEV will continue. I’ve known Paul Matney to be a man of high integrity and honor.

The political organization that he has joined to support passage of the referendum could not have found a better spokesman for this worthy project.

As he noted in talking about Xcel Energy’s own plans to build a new office complex downtown and the company’s struggle to replace key employees who are reaching retirement age. “Xcel is struggling to find people to fill those spots,” Matney said, “so this is a quality-of-life issue.”

Melissa Dailey, the head of Downtown Amarillo Inc., had to walk the straight and narrow in her remarks to the Rotary Club about the MPEV. As a public employee, she is limited to speaking only about the facts. No campaigning  allowed, right, Ms. Dailey?

That’s fine. She turned it over to Paul Matney who — as a “civilian” — is allowed to speak from the heart.

He did so today.

 

Constables: still unnecessary

Morice Jackson has quit his job as a Potter County constable and this week the county commissioners voted — in an interesting 3-2 decision — to replace him.

Why?

The county has had issues in the past with individuals holding these elected offices. Some of them haven’t done any work, yet they still get paid. Jackson, to his credit, wasn’t one of them.

Indeed, he dressed the part of a well-turned-out law enforcement officer.

But I remain dubious about the need for this extra arm of law enforcement. Still, counties retain them. Some constables are put to work. Others, well, don’t have enough work to keep them busy.

Their duties as prescribed by law involve serving civil papers and providing court security in justice of the peace courts. Some of them actually take part in traffic stops and issuing citations to motorists. Jackson would do all of that while on the job in Potter County.

The office, though, just isn’t worth the expense that counties pay to fund them. Constables’ duties could be done by sheriff’s departments, which also have duly qualified law enforcement officers on the job and also are run by elected officials.

Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner believes in the constable’s office.¬†She cited the revenue the offices bring to the county. But do they really provide a valuable service that couldn’t be provided by another existing law enforcement agency?

I’ve always thought that less government¬†meant more efficient government.¬†As we’ve seen on occasion in Potter and Randall counties over the years, though, they occasionally present more trouble than they’re worth.

 

Are we going to be timid about city’s future?

Leaps of faith require a certain degree of risk.

We take them at various stages of our life. When we change careers; when we move from one part of the country to another; there’s even a leap of faith that occurs when you commit yourself to someone for the rest of your life.

The great thing about faith, though, is that if it’s strong enough, it can carry you through. You rely totally on it.

So it might be with Amarillo City Hall’s grand new plan for its downtown district. It might well require us to take a leap of faith that a new direction for the city is worth the effort.

I’m still dumbstruck by the timidity I keep hearing from those who for whatever reason — real or imagined — feel somewhat intimidated by what’s being proposed for the downtown district’s future.

Planners want to build an athletic/entertainment venue. They want to construct a downtown convention hotel. They are planning to build a parking structure. Three building are going to be built downtown. The aim is as plain as it gets: They want to reshape downtown. They want it to become something of an entertainment attraction.

What is it now? Well, it’s really more or less … how do I say it nicely, nothing to brag about. At least not yet.

It’s come some distance from where it was, say, 20 years ago. The Santa Fe Building is bustling with Potter County government activity; Polk Street is slowly coming back to life; that big ol’ Chase Tower is full — for the time being — but it will lose a lot of tenants when Xcel Energy and West Texas A&M University vacate the tower for new digs elsewhere.

Xcel’s and WT’s departure from the Chase Tower, therefore, isn’t a net loss for the downtown district. It’s a net plus.

There’s movement, finally, on the Barfield Building at the corner of Sixth and Polk.

The leap of faith will occur when the multipurpose event venue is built and the city starts to promote it for a wide range of activity. It will rely on hotel-motel tax revenue to keep it going. The convention hotel is tied directly to the MPEV. It, too, will require some serious marketing and promotion.

It’s time to keep the faith, man.

I am acutely aware of the need to improve the Civic Center. That, too, will come eventually, at least that’s my hope. And what about the old Herring Hotel building on the northern edge of the downtown district? Believe it or not, downtown leaders tell me they believe there is a place for the Herring, that it can be renovated and turned into something not yet envisioned or imagined. It, too, requires a leap of faith.

I am willing to take that leap. My faith in the potential for success makes it possible.

Downtown hotel design gets ‘certified’

This is one of the more fascinating steps so far in the quest to rebuild downtown Amarillo.

The proposed convention hotel has received something called a “certificate of appropriateness.”

The downtown design committee has signed off on the concept for the looks of the proposed Embassy Suites hotel that will be built near the Civic Center, the proposed multipurpose event venue — aka MPEV — and a multi-story parking garage.

It’s all coming together, the city and its design consultants say.

The design panel needed to ensure that the hotel fit the city’s aesthetic standards.

I’ve seen the renderings of what the complex is going to look like. They are impressive, to say the least.

The funding of the project remains as stated: hotel-motel tax revenue will fund it, along with tax breaks granted by the city and, presumably, by Potter County, given that the district lies inside the county line.

Some skeptics remain out there, thinking nefarious thoughts about who did what to and for¬†whom and whether it’s all on the up-and-up. I’m not one of them.

I continue to embrace the concept as it has been presented. I will continue to hold onto my faith that the city’s funding formula will hold up and I will continue to hope for the very best that the city — along with the developers and investors it is trying to recruit — will deliver the goods as promised.

Just make sure, folks, that it’s all, um, appropriate.

Change has come to Amarillo City Hall

I’m going to wait before passing any judgment on the new Amarillo City Council lineup.

A couple of obvious changes are worth noting, so I’ll do so here.

Two women were voted off the council: Ellen Robertson Green and Lilia Escajeda. They lost to men. So an all-male council will be making decisions affecting Amarillo taxpayers’ lives.

There’s something a bit unsettling about that prospect.

As a red-blooded American male myself, it’s not that I think the five men set to serve are all bad. But I do trust women’s judgment.

Ellen Green, for example, offered up my favorite retort to those who were yapping their discontent about the red-light cameras the city has deployed at various intersections. Her answer? Don’t run the red lights and you won’t have anything to worry about. Who in the world can argue with that?

The fellow who defeated Green in Place 1, Elisha Demerson, made history by becoming the city’s first African-American council member. He once served on the Potter County Commissioners Court, as a commissioner and later for a single term as county judge. His record as county judge came under scrutiny during the municipal campaign. It didn’t gain any traction with voters who elected him anyway.

It’s worth keeping our eye, though, on his relationship with the guy who won in Place 3, Randy Burkett, who defeated Escajeda. Burkett, it turns out, has some pretty caustic views about issues involving race relations, as was revealed late in the campaign on his Facebook page.

Will these men be able to work together? They appear to have widely differing world views. City policy, though, would seem to require them to set those differences aside. The City Council, after all, is a non-partisan body.

Demerson and Burkett both talked about accountability and transparency. Mayor Paul Harpole was re-elected and he, too, has talked openly about the need for transparency. Returning Place 2 Councilman Brian Eades brings some continuity to the new council. Mark Nair and Steve Rogers are running off against each other for the Place 4 seat.

It’s a new council, all right. Time will tell whether voters have made a good investment or purchased the proverbial pig in a poke.

 

What are our constables doing … actually?

Sometimes you run into people and wonder: Is this person for real?

I saw one of those folks this morning at the Potter County Courthouse in downtown Amarillo.

His name? Morice Jackson. His job? He’s an elected constable in Justice of the Peace Precinct 4. Why take note of this man?

I shall explain.

Constable Jackson was dressed in full police gear. I was being body scanned as I entered the building, which is the new normal at both Potter and Randall county government buildings.

There was Jackson, chatting up a couple of Potter County sheriff’s deputies. He looked sharp in his uniform. He had all the hardware required: pistol, Taser, handcuffs, some kind of leg holster, ammo … for all I know, he might have been packing brass knuckles in a pocket.

Then the thought came to my mind. Why is it I never hear of Constable Jackson making an actual arrest? For that matter, why don’t we hear of any constable making arrests? I brought this up with a friend of mine later in the day who once served as a constable in Randall County. We concurred that we never hear about Jackson being involved in an arrest of a fleeing bad guy, or taking part in what one would call actual police work.

It’s fair to presume, just for the sake of argument, that a constable who’s elected to office is a politician who’d jump at the chance at getting his or her name mentioned whenever an arrest is made.

I don’t bring this up necessarily to poke fun at Constable Jackson. Frankly, I do not know this man.

I do want to wonder aloud, though, just why we have this office in the first place.

I continue to scratch my head over this extra layer of law enforcement that seems to me to be an obvious waste of taxpayer money. Yes, some folks are going to disagree with this, saying that you cannot have “too many cops on the beat.”

But the Texas Constitution, as I understand it, lays out constable’s duties. They are to provide¬†security for JP courts and to serve warrants and other papers on behalf of the justice of the peace. I don’t think either or both of those jobs requires the constable to look like a SWAT team member ready to blast his way into a building. They have authority to perform other police duties, but in the 20 years I’ve lived in Amarillo, I have yet to hear about a constable being involved in anything other than paper-serving and bailiff’s duties.

Which brings up another question: Aren’t those duties that can be performed by sheriff’s deputies?