Friday, May 30, 2008

When Does Growth Become a Bad Thing?

I’m having a little problem with growth. It seems that I, like many men of my age, have put on a few extra pounds around the middle. Dieting, exercise, positive thinking… I’ve tried them all, but over the years, the inexorable crawl from one belt hole to the next has continued.

Now, this isn’t a major issue… yet. I’m a big guy, but I can support the weight. The big problem comes when I try to button my trousers. You see, while I keep growing, the inanimate fabric of my clothing steadfastly refuses to keep pace. Something about it being a finite resource, I suppose.

Frisco may soon experience some of the same “growing pains.” Over the past few years, we’ve raced through the municipal equivalent of pre-adolescent growth spurts. Any parent of a middle-schooler can appreciate the challenge of keeping up with that kind of growth. You buy a pair of sneakers this week, only to find yourself back at Payless before the tread is even worn thin. In Frisco, just about the time that you get to drive on the newly-opened lane of fresh pavement, you realize that the street needs to be widened.

These constraints we can deal with. It certainly hits the pocketbook to shell out for a new pair of shoes or a four-lane expansion, but with a little belt tightening, you can still make ends meet. And as long as your income continues to grow, you’re probably going to do okay.

That’s one reason that cities and their politicians talk about “Growth” as such a great boon. If you’re not growing, you’re falling behind, right?! But when does growth become a bad thing?

Well, much like my reticent pants, there are some resources that just won’t keep up with Frisco’s expansion. The most obvious is water. A little over a year ago, we were stuck in a drought that had reservoirs at an all-time low. Last year’s higher-than-normal rainfall alleviated some of that shortage, but the water levels are already beginning to drop again. The North Texas Municipal Water District has a plan to try and keep up with the demand for water in our region, but most of it depends on creating new reservoirs and even buying water from our neighbors to the north. The former projects are mired in bureaucratic red tape and environmental concerns, while the Okies haven’t decided if their water is even for sale.

But even if these new projects do come on line as expected, dams don’t create water. At some point, our growth will outpace the ability of the land to support us. Don’t believe me? Take a quick trip west to Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico. What was once a thriving community that spanned hundreds of square miles quickly disappeared when they outgrew the land’s capacity to provide. Can’t happen in these modern times? Don’t count on it.

Beyond water, there are other resources that will limit the number of people who can live in North Texas. There’s plenty of air, but we’re already straining its ability to clear out pollutants before we have to breathe them. Local food supplies are ample for now. But more and more we find ourselves relying on items produced further and further from home. Watch the impact of the recent rise in fuel prices on the cost of food and you’ll get a sense of the danger this reliance on distant growers presents.

The bottom line is that it is unrealistic to expect that we can continue to grow at anywhere near our current rate indefinitely. At some point, our city, region, state and country will have to deal with the concept of zero growth. How we do that – and when – is the tricky part. But any way you slice it, we’re going to have to wean ourselves from the concept that we can grow our way out of our problems. That doesn’t work with my waistline, and it won’t work with our city.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Local Politics Need to Color Outside the Lines

If you’re a political junkie in Frisco, (and I am) the last couple of months have provided plenty of fireworks. We saw wild claims and counter-claims from both sides of the late night liquor sales ordinance (strip clubs, economic booms). Ethics accusations were levied against a mayoral candidate. And if you had a few neighbors over for a springtime cookout, chances are good that one of the 14 candidates showed up stumping for votes. (I think I spotted three at my daughter’s birthday, but I didn’t look too closely at the clown’s makeup.) What originally appeared to be slim electoral pickings, bloomed at the filing deadline into a robust field of choices.

It all culminated in last Saturday’s election, where we collectively chose a new Mayor, one council member (the other seat will require a run off) and defeated the option to extend the sales of adult beverages beyond midnight on most nights. The two incumbent school board members were returned to their offices by a comfortable margin. And while some may have been surprised by certain results, it was pretty much a typical, small-town municipal election in North Texas.

Yet, I couldn’t help being struck by the monochromatic nature of the slate of candidates this year. I was Curious, I went back and scanned through the city charter. Sure enough, I wasn’t able to find anything restricting candidates to white, male, family men. In a year where the national election news is being dominated by non-traditional candidates, that’s what filled out the ballot for municipal office: white guy, white guy, Hispanic guy, white guy, black woman, white guy, white guy, white guy… you get the picture.

A 2006 American Community Survey conducted by the US Census Bureau pegged the Hispanic population of Frisco at over 11,000 or roughly 13 percent. And yet a quick glance at the city council photographs adorning City Hall indicates none of that diversity in any city-wide elected position. Meanwhile, women make up just over half of the population. But, outside of the school board, only one woman now holds a city elected office. African-Americans? None.

Why are these constituencies so under-represented in Frisco? I spoke with council candidate Antonio Luevano to get his perspective. His theory is that the animosity kindled by the regional debate over illegal immigrants has discouraged our Hispanic citizens from getting active in local politics. If that’s the case, it’s a shame. There are certainly issues facing this growing community (jobs, affordable housing), but no strong leadership presence has stepped forward to address them. Mr. Luevano had the best of intentions, but his short residency in town put him at a significant disadvantage. He garnered only 5% of the votes. If Frisco’s Hispanic community wants its voice heard, it will need to find a more experienced candidate the next time around.

As for the dearth of women on the ballot, that comes as a bigger surprise. Frisco has a long track record of electing women to city office. Mayor Kathy Seei proudly served our community for 6 years and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the growth that followed. At least one woman has served on the city council for a number of years, with Joy West currently filling that role. And yet, in this election, only LeDella Levy represented her gender amongst the 10 city council and mayoral candidates, and she received the lowest vote tally of any of them.

I would never suggest that anyone vote for or against someone strictly based on their membership in one or another ethnic or gender category. There were ample other differences in the candidates on which to base a decision. Rather, I hope that this election cycle serves as a wakeup call to those constituencies which find themselves under-represented in Frisco City Hall. Municipal governments have far more impact on our day-to-day lives than any national office. Rather than expending excess energy on the HillyBama debate, cast your focus closer to home and get involved locally. Perhaps in the future, our elected representatives can better reflect the varied hues of our population.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Frisco Faces Rapid Aging Process

Are you the 100,000th resident of Frisco? We may never know exactly which person tipped the scale, but we do know that whoever you are, you moved to Frisco in April of 2008 to join the other 15,000-plus other folks that have moved here since 2006, and the 60,000 in the 6 years before that.

If you are new to Frisco, chances are you live in one of the brand-new subdivisions along the north side of town. You probably don’t remember a Frisco without Pizza Hut Park. Or the new City Hall and Library complex. Or Safety Town. Or Harold Bacchus park. Or any number of other improvements we’ve seen over the past few of years. Yes, Frisco is shooting up a lot like my 13-year-old son – and along with the growth spurts comes ample teenage growing pains.

Fast forward 15 years.

Neighborhoods are starting to show some age. The rapid-growing trees planted by cost-conscious developers are poking their roots through your yard – and possibly your home’s foundation. Streets are buckling in places, making for a bumpy ride through the neighborhood. The grass in the local park is wearing thin in places and non-existent in others. Rust is showing on the swing set. In short, we’re starting to show the civic equivalent of the middle-age bulge.

If you’d like a glimpse at how things might unfold, you don’t have to travel far. Indeed, you don’t have to leave town. In 1999, I moved into the Plantation Resort area in southeast Frisco. At the time, it was one of the gems of suburban development in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Now, less than 10 years later, some of those signs of age are setting in. And it’s not that local residents have let things go. We take a lot of pride in our neighborhood. But the ravages of time, as they say, are more powerful than the best intentions.

Frisco is going to face a unique challenge in the coming years. Because we’ve grown so quickly, we’re going to age just as fast. All of the facilities we’re opening now will start to show their own wrinkles and age spots. And the cost of maintaining and renovating our infrastructure is going to be steep. As our growth starts to flatten out - and even decline - we’ll have a harder time accessing funds through borrowing. To counter this problem, the city council established a Capital Reserve Fund. Built on today’s, relatively inexpensive money, this asset can be used over time to maintain and renovate facilities at a much lower cost. But while the mechanism is in place, we need to ensure that funding it continues to be a priority for future administrations.

Another challenge is keeping our eyes on the past while we develop the future. As we add new housing developments and retail space to fill in the corners of the city, we have to ensure that the mature areas receive some attention as well. It’s wonderful that parks and playgrounds are a staple of every new development, but some of our existing neighborhoods haven’t been so lucky. We didn’t have the cash to create such elaborate features back in 1995. Now that we do, development funds should flow to the older areas of town as well.

Rapid growth has provided Frisco with amenities that are the envy of cities throughout the region. But now is the time to plan for the day when we turn the corner from civic adolescence to municipal maturity.