Could Waxahachie become the next Detroit? In a word, no, and there are two different stories here. One is of the decline of small downtown America and the other is of Detroit. Both will have you cheering for your city leaders!
In the last several decades, there has been a decline in small-town America. Gone are the days of Mayberry with Floyd the barber and Ellie Walker working the family pharmacy. As the interstate highway system became more prevalent, more Americans took to the open highway. Shopping malls and mega-marts were constructed. Lifestyles began to change as more educational opportunities opened up and better jobs became available. Next came the change of scenery. Why live in a 50 year old home when you can buy something bigger, better, with larger closets?
As more people moved away or moved on, it became harder and harder for the local business to sustain itself and the small business owner suddenly had trouble getting loans or extending credit. With this, the results are predictable. Doors closed.
“That’s been happening in a lot of cities,” said Paul Stevens, Waxahachie city manager. “It’s not just Detroit.” In regards to Detroit, however, Stevens acknowledged that a number of factors hit the city. Aging infrastructure, mismanagement and employee unions with “huge pension funds really hit the city hard.” The Motor City, once so prosperous, was the main industrial force. When it faltered so, too, did Detroit.
“We [Waxahachie] have a large industrial base, an excellent retail base and excellent housing base. This is important so if one slides a little, the other is there to pick it up. For example, Magnablend. Since that fire, they have done everything right to correct past mistakes and make them safer. They learned from that [fire] and have been a great part of this community, providing jobs. The fire was a tragedy but they have become a better company and we’re better as well.”
Unlike Detroit (and don’t worry, we’ll get to the craziness of Detroit in a moment), the leaders in Waxahachie have always been fiscally conservative. “You can go to other cities,” said Stevens, “and find higher levels of service that we simply do not have. We’d like to do it but the timing isn’t right. For instance, we would like to have a recreation center and larger parks. We hope we’re getting to that point but in the past, we’ve understood that we cannot drain our budget to do those things.”
Instead, our leaders have created a large fund balance “for rainy days,” which have shown rating agencies that Waxahachie is a good investment for bond buyers. Translation: Waxahachie is a growing, sound city worth investing businesses, homes and schools in. Were there a natural disaster of some sort, outside sources would be more willing to invest in the city to help rebuild.
“We have the basics such as garbage, water, sewer,” Stevens said. “But we have really encouraged our citizens to be proactive, be creative. A good example is a new dog park we have. It was mainly funded by private donations. Another example would be a disc golf course we’re going to have.” Again, citizens driven by an idea and supported by local government raised money to purchase the equipment and make the park possible. “We try to be creative so that the city budget doesn’t take on everything.”
“When the economy started to go bad in 2007, we had to lay people off. It was very tough but with the direction of good city council members and mangers, we were able to weather through a difficult time.” Stevens said those times reinforced city leader commitment to acting fiscally conservative in the interest of citizens and city growth. Furlough days were imposed. City employees took off a day without pay once a month for six months. “It was difficult but because our employees picked up the slack, we all pulled together and there was a tremendous amount of pride in what we were doing.”
“What happened in Detroit happened over generations,” he said. “It’s easy to look back and say they shouldn’t have done this or that, they should have been more careful with their workforce.”
Unquestionably, with the decline in the motor industry came harder times for Detroit but what happened there went from bad to disastrous under the watch of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick
During Kilpatrick’s tenure as mayor, there were a number of scandals involving the mayor’s wife, Carlita, who cost taxpayers two luxury SUVs. She also attacked a stripper who was performing in the infamous Manoogian mansion — the official residence of Detroit’s mayor. The stripper was later murdered, leaving many to speculate who was behind the hit while the Detroit Police Department was dragged into a variety of lawsuits with (or against) the Kilpatricks. The mayor created the Kilpatrick Civic Fund, an organization to help Detroiters in need but, instead, the funds were used for golf clubs, yoga and vacations for the Kilpatricks. Dozens and dozens of friends and family members were given city posts in which they were vastly unqualified, resumes were falsified while racketeering, bribery and larceny charges piled on. As Kilpatrick continued to have affairs and lie to the citizens of Detroit, the suffering city lost over $10 million in lawsuits, not including what residents lost to Kilpatrick. Even as more and more taxpayers demanded that Kilpatrick step down, the mayor remained defiant.
It is an extreme case of a “strong mayor form of government” or “boss politics,” in which the mayor can hand out jobs to supporters. It is also the reason Waxahachie will never be the next Detroit. While Detroit voted in a mayor who had no experience, there is a council manager form of government in Waxahachie. “A professional staff runs city business and the city council runs the vision of our city, providing an excellent check and balance system,” Stevens said.
While more homes and abandoned buildings are being boarded up daily in Detroit, Waxahachie is focused on sustainability, focusing on community assets. By reinvesting in historic downtown, reaching out to the community and community leaders, there is a push to keep a Floyd, the barber and Ellie Walker, the pharmacist, in business even as we bring in new businesses.
All hail our city leaders!
Oh. And about my water bill ….
Now residing in “the nicest city in Texas,” Alexandra Allred is the author of numerous books, including White Trash, Damaged Goods and the Allie Lindell series. Visit her website, www.alexandratheauthor, or Twitter @alexandraallred but always check out her column the WDL as she ponders all things Waxahachie and beyond its borders.