Brightening a ‘Burb
One of Tarrant’s oldest towns gets a new attitude.
By JEFF PRINCE
Times have been better at Ponderosa Mobile Home Park just off East Belknap Street, where blue-collar workers, immigrants, and seniors on fixed incomes are among those living in the small trailers arranged side by side near the historic Birdville Cemetery. Sewer lines are outdated, the streets are bumpy, and many of the trailers are falling into disrepair, with sagging porches and dry rot here and there. Haltom City’s two-mile portion of Belknap Street has been bitten by the uglies for years, and the 6000 block near Carson Street where the Ponderosa sits isn’t winning any beauty awards either.
Back in the 1960s and ’70s, housewives drove station wagons filled with kids down the tidy little road that led past the cemetery to Barbrook Park, where two swimming pools provided summer relief to the wave of families moving to this East Fort Worth suburb. But the park is abandoned now and the cemetery plagued by vandals, and both stay padlocked most of the time. Cemetery Road isn’t much used these days except by trailer home residents — and even their futures are murky.
Dee Taylor, one of the city’s more irascible residents, has lived at Ponderosa for a dozen years. Her dander was raised after the property owner sent succinct letters to residents on Jan. 3 announcing the trailer park’s closing. Residents were given until June 30 to leave. “Any mobile home left on the property after July 1, 2006, will be taken to the dump,” the letter said.
The trailers are old. Few look as if they would survive a move. And, besides, where would they go? Many trailer parks won’t accept 20-year-old mobile homes.
Taylor called Fort Worth Weekly seeking help for the trailer dwellers threatened with displacement. Having trouble finding Taylor’s place, a reporter asked for directions from a man standing outside one of the mobile homes.
He wasn’t one of Taylor’s fans. “She thinks she’s the boss of everything,” he said. (Taylor owns the prettiest mobile home here and doesn’t mind crowing about it or criticizing the shabbier abodes.)
Sybil Sanchez walked by with two dogs on leashes. She has spent 19 years at the park and pays $230 a month to nestle her 1984-model trailer among the 83 others. She was scared silly after she received the eviction letter and suspected the city was up to something.
“They’re just trying to get rid of the trailer park,” she said. “I think they want to put a Wal-Mart or a Dollar Store here or something.”
Residents were relieved on Jan. 20 when the Ponderosa’s owner sent a follow-up notice saying the park had been sold. The new owner has vowed to bring the park up to code, satisfy city inspectors, and continue allowing residents to live there. A construction crew had just arrived to fill potholes with asphalt, giving the little community hope to hang on a while longer. Still, a betting man might wager that the park’s days are numbered.
Haltom City no longer wants to be the bucktoothed country cousin of the Metroplex municipal family. City leaders are vowing to improve its image. Increased property tax rates and a maxed-out sales tax rate are helping support a $54.7 million budget aimed at whipping the place into shape and attracting economic development. The city’s infrastructure is being improved, and a code-enforcement crew (larger by one officer) is making proactive sweeps.
With the desire for progress also comes the harder edge of bigger-city attitudes. Condemning properties and threatening eminent domain are strategies no longer off-limits in this town of 40,000-and-growing. Tax increment financing districts and other tax abatement schemes are no longer dirty words. Meanwhile, a handful of high-dollar revitalization projects are being plotted that could eventually reverse a reputation that’s been in decline for the past quarter-century.
Not long ago Haltom City was considered by many to be a festering boil on the Metroplex’s bohiney. Allegations that a jailer raped female prisoners in the Haltom City jail grabbed the attention of news media across the nation in 2002. Bad news kept coming: A Haltom City policeman was accused of lewd behavior with teen-age Explorer scouts. A municipal judge with the nickname “Maximum Jack” resigned after being lambasted for sentencing single moms to jail stints for truant kids or unpaid tickets. A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of a dozen former jail prisoners who told stories of official oppression. The police chief resigned without explanation.
In 2004, City Manager Richard Torres got crossways with a city councilman, who led an uprising against the no-nonsense leader. Five of the seven city council members voted to fire Torres. Angry residents responded by presenting a petition to recall those council members, even though a general election was three months away.
All five council members were kicked out. For the next 90 days there were no city council meetings, until replacements could be voted into office.
Ironically, it was a recall election held 150 years ago that sent the city down the road it’s followed thus far. The Texas Legislature created Tarrant County in 1849 and allowed its 600 residents to choose a county seat. The election was held in the Birdville settlement that would later be incorporated as Haltom City. Voters elected Birdville as the county seat, but in 1856 the vote was overturned in a special election, and Fort Worth stole the title. Birdville leaders raised a ruckus and sent a recall petition to the state legislature and to the Texas Supreme Court. No dice. Fort Worth went on to prominence while Birdville stayed a small farming and ranching community.
Before the advent of superhighways, commuters relied heavily on Belknap to go between Fort Worth and points north and east. George W. Haltom, one of Birdville’s most successful businessmen, moved his jewelry business there and built commercial buildings for lease. Others merchants followed, and East Belknap became lined with businesses catering to commuters — motels, diners, and auto sales and repair shops.
Birdville’s population was about 200 by the late 1940s but grew to more than 3,000 once the town incorporated in 1950 and renamed itself Haltom City to honor the local businessman. Low taxes and open spaces attracted working-class residents, and the population swelled to 30,000 by the 1960s. The population was almost entirely Anglo until Asians began migrating to the city in the 1970s. U.S. Census statistics show that 1,600 Asians constituted about 5 percent of the city’s 33,000 population in 1990.Ten years later, more than 3,000 Asians were living among the city’s 39,000 residents.
Haltom City was ideally located for growth, sitting just minutes from downtown Fort Worth and conveniently close to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. But a sleepy political philosophy and tight budget meant big-time growth was elusive. Residents wanted low taxes at the expense of amenities, and that’s what they got. But attitudes are changing. Older, conservative residents are being outnumbered by young families, including an influx of Asians and Hispanics, arriving to fix up homes in older neighborhoods or settling into new residential developments north of Loop 820. The 1990 U.S. Census showed a city that was 90 percent Anglo with an average age of 34.1. By 2000, the median age was 32 and Anglos had shrunk to 77 percent of the population.
A city that had fallen behind on street repairs, parks, business recruitment, public transportation, and recreational facilities found itself facing a choice: Spend money and play catch-up or sit tight and gradually become a ghost town. In the past few years, voters approved a $15.7 million bond package for street improvements and a new library, fire station, and recreation center. Voters also approved a quarter-cent sales tax increase for street repairs, and pay about $5 a month extra on their water bills to clean out overgrown creek beds that, as Mayor Calvin White said, “made our city look like a third-world country.” Recently the city began requiring 80 percent masonry exteriors on new businesses, meaning that wood and metal buildings may soon no longer dominate the city. Historic overlay districts and East Belknap revitalization efforts are being studied, including preserving the old Haltom Theater building.
Becoming a cookie-cutter community paved with Blockbusters, Starbucks, and Wal-Marts is always a danger, although it would be hard to smooth out all of Haltom City’s character lines. The geographically narrow city stretches from the Airport Freeway north to Loop 820 and beyond, encompassing old and new parts of town, each with its own character. Asian business owners are spiffing up the western end of Belknap, using distinctive architectural designs, opening restaurants, and revitalizing older strip centers.
Naturally, residents such as those at the Ponderosa or others in older residences worry that revitalization means that anyone with an outdated house and a low income is no longer welcome. But city officials promise they’ll take a humanitarian approach in the citywide clean-up.
“Our city isn’t going to put people out on the streets,” said James Pliska, director of planning and inspections, who came to the city just as it was staging its turnaround. “I’m in charge of code enforcement, and we’re here to work to resolve the situations.”
The mayor, a longtime preacher, said he hopes to convince the city’s numerous churches to become involved in helping upgrade houses for the elderly and poor when there are code problems.
In 2004, voters approved limited alcohol sales (beer and wine in grocery stores and mixed drinks in restaurants), making it easier for the city to recruit new stores and restaurants. QT is planning a sprawling “travel center” and convenience store near Beach and 28th streets. “That would not have happened if they couldn’t sell alcohol,” White said.
The changes are giving Haltom City a new swagger. “The mayor and city management want a better city,” Pliska said, “and I’ve seen the changes since I came here in 2000.”
Another fresh face might hasten that reversal of fortune.
“This is an exciting time for Haltom City,” said newly hired Assistant City Manager Chuck Barnett said. “I’m glad to be a part of it.”
A Fort Worth Star-Telegram tin sign from a time when papers were only a nickel sits among the antiques and doodads decorating Barnett’s new office at Haltom City Hall. He still likes the sign despite an editorial in the daily newspaper that questioned his ethics last year when he was Bedford’s city manager and spoke against a proposed tax rollback. The Texas Election Code prohibits spending public money for political advertising.
Barnett’s hiring this month was the latest sign that Haltom City remains intent on becoming the next Little Big Thing, a small boomtown trying to live up to its motto of “Proud and Progressive.” Barnett departed Bedford while the city was still split and staggered by controversy. Voters there approved rolling back the tax rate, despite Barnett’s pleas, causing the city to cut its budget, temporarily close its library and recreation center, lay off employees, and cut back on other city services.
“His resumé is laced with turbulence in respect to Bedford’s management,” Dee Taylor wrote in a letter published in The Dallas Morning News. “As city manager of Bedford, Mr. Barnett suggested raising property taxes. We don’t need to hear that in our city.”
Some Haltom City residents grumbled because former Mayor Jack Lewis wasn’t hired as assistant city manager. Lewis has deep ties in the community and had offered to do the job for $75,000.
“You’d think the city would hire a known, local applicant with experience and not go trolling outside our city to fill the post at a much higher salary,” said Pat Conley in a letter published in the Star-Telegram.
Lewis has lived in Haltom City since 1964, served on the city council from 1980 to 1984, wore the mayor’s hat from 1984 to 1991, and still enjoys strong community support. He is also a fiscal conservative, questioning some of Haltom City’s recent striving toward spit and polish, including construction of new municipal buildings and a hike in sales taxes. Lewis represents Haltom City’s old guard, the ones who resisted legalizing alcohol sales and rarely seemed concerned that growth and big-ticket dreams were skipping past their city and landing in places like North Richland Hills, Hurst, Southlake, Colleyville, Keller, Watauga, and Grapevine.
In 2004, Lewis spearheaded a successful drive to implement a senior tax freeze on residential property, providing relief to older residents but increasing the burden on businesses and younger residents to pay for city services. And business development and youth are where Haltom City is leaning. Families are moving to new developments north of Loop 820, renovating older houses in the inner city, demanding parks for their children, and better schools, smoother roads, bigger stores, and increased public safety.
Hiring Barnett was a no-brainer, City Manager Tom Muir said: “Chuck was the best fit here; I mean no disrespect for Mr. Lewis.”
Barnett’s problems in Bedford began when he told city council members that a property tax increase was necessary to meet the city’s basic services and provide raises for city employees and public safety personnel. He suggested increasing the tax rate from 38.9 to 44.5 cents per $100 in assessed property value in 2004 and bumping it up another nickel in 2005. City council members chose to seek the full increase in the first year. Some residents went ballistic and started a property tax rollback petition instead, forcing an election.
Leading up to the vote, Barnett spoke for several hours at a town hall meeting, subtly urging people to resist the rollback. About 500 people showed up. When the election was held, 9,848 of the city’s 47,000 residents voted, a whopping turnout. The rollback prevailed by a mere 10 ballots. “Had it not been [passed] by 10 votes I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now, because we would have been in a position to move that city forward,” Barnett said earlier this month while settling into his new Haltom City office.
Expecting Bedford’s diminishing revenues to threaten city services, Barnett looked at the vacant assistant city manager position available in Haltom City and saw a municipality with opportunities galore and a philosophy of growth similar to his own.
“In looking at the city of Bedford and looking at the city of Haltom City, I saw Haltom City as extremely progressive in its thinking, with solid management and a city council that seems to be focused in the right direction in wanting to use its resources to move forward,” he said.
Bedford’s new mayor Jim Story arrived at the tail end of Barnett’s tenure but saw enough to say that the city official will be an asset to Haltom City. “He is a good man, a creative man,” Story said. “He’ll do a good job.”
About 20 percent of Haltom City’s available land is undeveloped, and several large tracts and freeway frontage property offer sweet opportunities for new businesses, a river walkway with a hike and bike trail, parks, and new housing. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit system is considering expanding its rail system from D/FW Airport to Fort Worth, using the Cotton Belt line that carries the Tarantula Train. Haltom City is trying to convince DART to establish a train stop near the proposed site of a town center at Haltom Road and Glenview Drive.
Muir, the city manager, has his strengths — he’s praised as being ethical, people-oriented, and hard-working — but he’s a relative newcomer to the area and lacks Barnett’s overall experience. Barnett worked in finance, parks and recreation, public works, and economic development during his 14 years with Bedford.
“He has a reputation in the northeast Tarrant County area, with economic development being his forte,” Mayor White said. “That’s certainly an area in Haltom City where we have an opportunity for progress.”
Lewis and some of the old guard are all for progress but say the city is relying too much on taxes and a growing cost of government.
“How much do we want to pay for more government when we’re living in an area of the country that is a blue-collar community?” he asked. “I’m for reasonable progress. You have to reach a happy medium. I have to live within my means, and I think our local government should do that as well.”
White, Muir, Barnett, and others believe attracting businesses to generate sales taxes and relieve financial pressure on homeowners is the way to go. There have been a few wrenches in the spokes lately, but they haven’t derailed several bold projects on the drawing board.
A “town center” with stores, shops, restaurants, and all the synergy that a development like that creates will be built in Haltom if city leaders have their way. And to make that happen, officials have cast aside padded gloves and chosen to go bare knuckles, just as other cities have long done to get what they want when people stand in the way of what the majority deem to be progress.
City leaders say the ideal place for the town center is a 50-acre spot near Haltom Road and Glenview Drive. The large lot is centrally located with access for residents and close to the Cotton Belt rail line and the proposed DART train station.
However, a California investor bought the land about 20 years ago when it came up for sale, and he’s ready to profit from his investment. Haltom City’s lack of vision back then created today’s problem. The owner now expects more money than the city wants to pay.
“The city should have bought the land [back then], but if you don’t have leadership that has a vision for the future, if all they are thinking about is holding the tax rate down and letting people do whatever they want to, you’re not going to be thinking about things like that,” White said. “We let that get away, and now the price tag could be significant.”
Complicating negotiations is the natural gas boom. The California man owns mineral rights and, with drilling companies itching to stick straws into the Barnett Shale, he sees another profit avenue. So city officials condemned the property, narrowly beating a change in the law regarding taking property for private development. White said several times during an interview for this article that he dislikes eminent domain, yet the city is holding that threat over the landowner’s head during negotiations. A $4.5 million library that was part of the 2001 bond package has been pegged for the site, in part to give the city a legal leg to stand on to justify forcing the owner to sell.
“We need that in order to accomplish the vision we have,” White said. “I hate eminent domain. It’s a last resort. We’d much rather negotiate, and that’s what we’re currently doing. We had to take some legal steps to protect our position.”
John Williams, one of five ousted city council members, dubbed the town center idea a “pipe dream” and blasted city leaders for not having already built the library somewhere else. The money that voters approved in 2001 won’t stretch nearly as far today as it would have five years ago, he said.
“They’re betting on getting the [DART] rail station over there but they are going to be competing with North Richland Hills, and the [proposed town center site] is tied up in a lawsuit,” he said. “There are avenues out there other than that property.”
Yet, White said, he expects negotiations to produce a sale agreement as early as a few weeks from now. The actual town center might not be finished for years, but “if we don’t get this in place now, we won’t have it in place then,” he said.
City officials might also have to get nasty if federal funding comes through for a creek project. The 2001 bond election approved $4 million for drainage improvements to Little Fossil Creek and $250,000 for a hike-and-bike trail. When finished, the creek improvements are expected to remove about 500 acres from the flood plain, opening the door to new businesses and homes. But federal funding has been dwindling in recent years, and the extra $11 million needed is in limbo as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects are being re-examined.
“[Hurricane] Katrina kind of drove the nail in the coffin,” White said. “We’re at the mercy of Washington.”
If the funding comes through, condemnation of some older houses and businesses near the creek is inevitable. “How do you do that without having to use eminent domain? You try to do it by being a good neighbor and arriving at a solution that will be amenable to everybody,” White said. “There will be a lot of people who go that route, and there will be some die-hards, and we know that. Hopefully we can minimize that. I don’t like eminent domain, but sometimes that can be justified if it’s for the larger good.”
Meanwhile, the hoped-for development of another choice parcel of land near the intersection of Northeast Loop 820 and Beach Street has bogged down. The Texas Department of Transportation appeared on the verge of widening I-35 at 820, which would include work at the nearby Beach Street exit. Haltom City has about 160 acres of land at the southeast corner ready for commercial growth. But highway planners are now considering expanding the designs to accommodate a toll road. Nobody is certain how new plans will affect the Beach Street exit, and developers haven’t been willing to commit to projects until they know what the access ramps will look like.
Delays and hurdles like these frustrate city leaders chomping at the bit to push ahead, but nobody is sitting around waiting for something to happen. That was the old way of doing business.
“Haltom City has some great visions of what it can be,” White said. “Because we didn’t have a vision 20 years ago, all of a sudden we’re behind the eight-ball, and we’re trying to play catch up now. We had a mindset to let property owners build anything they wanted to, don’t raise taxes, and we don’t care about streets. The world has changed.”
Part of that world includes the likes of Taylor, Sanchez, and all the others with homes and businesses that don’t pass muster. David Guynn, the former Ponderosa owner who recently sold out, said he saw the writing on the wall. The city is cracking down on inspections and requiring expensive upgrades for businesses such as his.
Guynn is getting older and struggling with the after-effects of a stroke. He figured it was time to turn over the reins to someone willing to put time, money, and sweat into the property. He seldom worried about codes or inspectors in the past, but then the park and trailers and sewer lines got old, and badly needed repairs piled up. And that’s a no-no in a city trying to reinvent itself. Old businesses get the hairy eyeball and new businesses are recruited. Old-timers like Guynn have to step up or step aside.
“Used to, they didn’t want development,” he said. “They wanted to protect the old businesses. Now it’s changing.”
You can reach Jeff Prince at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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