GARRETT — After sitting dormant for years, the tiny city of Garrett is coming to life. Complete with big grants, big plans – and the same carpet used on Air Force One.

“We’re the gateway to Ennis,” said city secretary/court administrator  Julie Featherston, the firecracker civil servant whose meticulous documentation has helped bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for sewer, better housing and law enforcement support.

The city’s budget is more than ten times the size it was just five years ago.

It all starts at City Hall, the nondescript former cotton gin building on Gibson.  

One room does it all: there’s two little windows to pay the sewer bill, and a weathered table with enough chairs around it for the city council – currently Mayor Florinda Smith, Mayor Pro-tem Matt Newsom, Linda Arthur, Jami Rogers and Steve Featherston – to meet at.

Trophies atop the Pepsi machine honor the Garrett Volunteer Fire Department’s wins at the pumper contest. Flags frame up a huge replica of the $350,000 check the city got for a grant from the Texas Office of Rural Community Affairs for a new sewer system.

So far, the town’s history archive is limited to one old picture of what was once the Garrett schoolhouse.

There’s also a three-acre spot set aside by developer Nathan Frumkin for the new city hall on Garrett Avenue, the continuation of Ennis’ Northeast Main. Chances are good much of the work on that project will be done with volunteers and donations, like the new police station was.

“We do a lot with volunteers,” said Featherston.

Consider the tiny new police station next door. The carpet was donated by a company that makes airline carpet – and also furnishes carpet for Air Force 1. “The downside is that it’s 100 percent wool and it’s hard to keep clean,” said Police Chief and city administrator Bill Turnage.

A Bristol resident, he retired from the Dallas Police Department in 2004 and came to work in Garrett. The tiny city is no speed trap, he said.

“We give people a 15 mph leeway on the highway. Here we’ll give about 10,” he said.

While dispatch functions are handled through the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office, Turnage applied for – and got – TLETS service; the program grants access via satellite to warrants and other critical law enforcement information.

“We’re the only non-24-7 department in the North Texas Council of Governments area that has that,” Turnage said of his three full-time staff, one part-time and seven reserves.

“We’re proud of the department we’ve built over here,” he said. “We’re basically rebuilding the city from the ground up.”

The city was officially incorporated in 1956. As of the 2000 census, there was 409 residents.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the city’s population is 409, which includes a total of 139 households.

Five years ago, the city budget was $28,000. In 2007, the city budget was $344,800.

An estimated 60 percent of the population is white, and the majority of the rest are Hispanic. Just over a quarter of the city’s population is estimated to be low income according to federal guidelines.

For the most part, Garrett is a bedroom community.

Businesses include the former Lewis Country Store, which had been Tucker’s, and is now Dorie’s Deli and Market.

The little city that could is even working at small efforts to go green, asking businesses who use plastic bags to also have a recycle bin.  

Look in the dictionary under washboard and you may see a picture of Garrett roads – but with the new sanitary sewer system on the way, the city is doing pothole patchwork and waiting to repair them until after the area has been dug up for the two-year project.

“As you see, our streets are big issues – but we didn’t want to fix them up, then tear them up and then fix them up again,” Featherston said.

Bringing home the bacon

That’s where the city’s $350k grant for sanitary sewer comes in, with the help of a company called GrantWorks. And it’s also where Julie Featherston excels.

She trained as a paralegal. In 2006, she was the recipient of the Alyce Deering scholarship at UNT, and she keeps updated with Texas Municipal League city clerk classes. She goes to every workshop and class she can to learn about how to get a city’s business done, and she has clearly mastered grantsmanship.

She expects to hear back in August about a $86,000-plus grant she’s applied for to get a small municipal park behind the city hall and police department. It will be the city’s only park. The application was intricately detailed, including testimonials from the SPCA detailing plans to use the gazebo, Garrett Baptist Church, Ennis ISD – and even the town’s children themselves.

Another grant from HOME, a U.S. Housing and Urban Development program, brought in funding for five homes for low income families, part of a national effort to replace substandard housing and give low income residents a chance at home ownership.

All the residents have to do is live in the homes for five years and keep the taxes and insurance up, and they will get ownership after five years. The city was even willing to throw in the appraisal and closing costs as needed, Featherston said.

Unfortunately, she said, even though the city got grants for five brick homes, they could only convince three families there wasn’t any strings attached.

“They thought it was too good to be true,” Featherston said.

But Featherston keeps an eagle eye on the city’s protocols, scrupulously avoiding things too good to be true.

“We run things by the book,” she said. “We keep up with what needs to be done. We do things right – and if we’re not doing it right, then we fix it immediately.”

The tiny city is going about its business in a scrupulously business-like manner, crossing every T and dotting every I. They have contracts with an engineer to be the city engineer and an attorney to be the city attorney.

A year ago, they started city-wide trash pickup, a major achievement. Before that, many residents waited for free dump days at the landfill, and dogs would get into garbage and scatter it.

Now there’s trash pickup, code enforcement efforts are up – tickets for non-compliance in an effort to keep things tidy.

“It’s a lot cleaner now that we’ve done some MILD code enforcement work,” said Turnage, adding that, to date, no one has had to actually pay a ticket, as just fixing the violation sufficed.

Just six years ago, there were meth houses and homes occupied by drug dealers.

“That doesn’t fly here anymore,” Featherston said.

“We’ve probably ruffled some feathers in Ellis County – we don’t have any partiality when it comes to enforcing the law. We treat everyone the same, and that’s how it should be,” Turnage said. “We’ve got to be the safest city in the Metroplex.”

With just over 400 souls, it’s easy enough to make a big impact. On Christmas, the officers deliver a Christmas meal for all the town’s elderly and infirm; if the city has a function, the officers take them a plate lunch.

Managing the day-to-day affairs of a small town – and living there at the same time – has its downside, Garrett resident Featherston notes.  

“I’ve had people come to my door on the weekend, wanting to pay their sewer bill, saying that it was their day off,” she said with a chuckle.

Definition of progress

Termed progress by most in town, the city has made a calculated, successful effort to make use of a newly-annexed patch of frontage on Interstate 45.

Over the past four years, they have annexed about 300 acres.

But that’s about as big as it gets.

In 2006, the city of Garrett reached a corporate agreement with the city of Ennis. “We agreed that we would only get so big,” Featherston said.

“We wanted to get to the highway. We wanted some frontage, as that was the only way we would get some money. They gave us our mile. They’ve annexed around us, and made a corporate agreement with Palmer, and now they’re working on Alma.

“We know we’re not ever going to be huge – we want to take what we have and make it real nice,” Featherston said.

Currently, the drive-in movie theater is still located outside city limits but in the Garrett ETJ.

“Being as small as we are, we can’t just take property. We’re working on infrastructure, and when we get water and sewer this way, when we can offer them, it will make it a little more favorable,” she said.

It’s a situation that draws unlikely comparisons.

“We’re sort of like University Park, but on the other end of the scale,” Turnage said. “We’re sort of landlocked.”

The city recently passed a liquor law approving package store sales of beer and wine. On IH-45, One Stop has been selling bottles of wine, and is building a new store at the corner of Spur 469 and Farm-to-Market 879. The law requires the liquor sales to remain at the highway and only for package store purposes; it passed with modest opposition.

“In general, people understand,” Featherston said, citing the city of another IH-45 city’s dependence on sales tax – the lion’s share of Alma’s revenues come from liquor sales to residents of neighboring dry towns.

Developer Nathan Frumkin of Plano has picked up 125 acres of land within Garrett’s newly expanded city lines, on the north side of Elk Corp.

His plans are tentative, based on the city’s capacity to bring sewer and water to the site. But they’re ambitious, too – eight acres for a commercial development,12 acres for a park, three acres for a new city hall and fire station – and the kicker: 400 lots for homes modestly priced in the $120,000-$140,000 range.

“We will quadruple the population of Garrett if we build there,” he said.

The attraction in Garrett?

“It’s country living with 25 minutes to downtown Dallas, one mile to Ennis, a few miles to Lake Bardwell,” he said. “I think the area will have good growth over the next four to five years.”

Reaction to growth:

Dolores and Winford Venable have lived in Garrett for half a century, and may be the residents who have lived in Garrett for the longest.

Winford was on the city council for a while, she was the city secretary for a number of years, retiring in the mid-1990s.

“We’re rooted in here,” Dolores said with a chuckle. The garden term is not a surprise – she and Winford are avid gardeners. “We’ve got our place fixed up, and we’ve got space here – half a city block and an extra large lot for a garden. In a city, you can’t have that,” she said.

She thinks her corner of Garrett Avenue and Marguerite Street is already congested, and expects the new development to increase traffic around her house, but she sees the city’s new efforts as somewhat inevitable.

“There’s so much more going on now than there was then,” she said. “You’ve got to make progress.”

Ennis City Manager Steve Howerton has been impressed with Garrett’s efforts.

“From what I’ve heard, I think they’re taking a very professional approach of the management of their government. That’s a good thing for them and a good thing for us, being neighbors. It’s very important for the cities of Ennis and Garrett to plan our cities together,” he said.

When cities don’t agree, a sort of ‘no man’s land’ can grow up between them with overlapping ETJ, Howerton said, noting that then, neither city can control the development and undesirable land uses can result.

He saluted Garrett’s successful efforts to get grant monies.

“Obviously, their need is great – they are ideally suited to be the recipients of those types of grants and they should take advantage of every one they can receive,” he said.

“I think our futures are intertwined. What they do well will benefit us, and what we do well will benefit them. We certainly want to see a strong partner develop the IH-45 corridor and we’re pleased to see the direction they’re moving in,” he said.

Florinda Smith has been mayor for five years. She said she’s pleased with the new developments around the city. “We’re loving it – I never expected it would go this good. We have a good council and we all work together. We have a goal, and we’re all there to meet it,” she said.

E-mail J. Louise at jlouise.larson@wninews.com.