Area officials set sights on investing

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Municipal leaders aim to spur growth as economy improves

Many municipal officials in the Denton area have their sights set on making investments to spur growth that was put on hold after the economy plunged in 2008 and 2009.

Officials who were once wary of making costly, long-term investments are now confident in the economy’s direction, and that confidence can be seen in actions taken by area city councils.

During the recession, some of Denton County’s municipal leaders had to hold off on investing in their wants to make sure the needs of their cities were not compromised. Leaders decided to continue the upkeep of the services already in place.

At the start of the recession, sales and property tax revenues decreased, according to state records, and officials had no choice but to wait until the economy improved.

“Everyone was in sleep-and-survival mode,” Aubrey Mayor Gary Hammett said. “We hit a rough spot in 2009, and we just lost confidence in the economy to build or even think about building.”

At the end of 2009, Texas Comptroller Susan Combs reported that sales tax collections for the state were down from 2008. She reported that collections across all major sectors of the Texas economy, including oil, gas, retail and construction, had decreased.

Evidence of a recession in the county was apparent after nearly every municipality reported decreased sales tax and property tax revenues in 2009, according to state reports.

Argyle, Aubrey, Bartonville, Justin, Sanger, Little Elm, Copper Canyon and Northlake lost between one-fourth and one-half of their sales tax revenue. Regional leaders trimmed budgets and in some cases reduced personnel.

According to several municipal budget statements, officials expressed interest in expanding support systems like water and sewer service to attract new development, but leaders decided to only invest in services already in place.

Before the economy started to recover, cities had only enough resources to maintain their current operations, Sanger City Manager Mike Brice said.

Today, leaders in Sanger, Argyle, Justin, Aubrey, Corinth and Shady Shores have reignited plans for expanding support services and commercial development.

And even though sales and property tax revenues have not returned to pre-recession levels, according to the comptroller’s reports, leaders are more confident in the economic outlook and may resume issuing bonds.

“We’ve seen some activity in the private sector, which has generated some interest, and people are spending money again.” Hammett said. “Since 2008, the economy has been struggling. Its recovery has been a driving force behind recent interest in expansions.”

Aubrey officials passed an ordinance to move forward with developing several acres of land located between Spring Hill Road and U.S. Highway 377 to reverse neighborhood decay and attract commercial development. Leaders in Argyle have their sights on investing in infrastructure improvement along major corridors, and Sanger wants to expand water and sewer services to support future growth.

Shady Shores Town Council members expect to spend about $2 million in the next two years to repair roads and solve drainage issues.

“We need to use the money while we have it,” Mayor John Williams said in a recent interview. “The more wisely you spend it, the more you’ll get out of your investments.”

However, even though the discussion has been revived, a handful of the projects are five to 15 years away, which is not too far in the future for most city planners.

“You have to start planning and working toward a goal now,” said Richard Luedke, Argyle’s community services director. “You only get one shot to get it right. If you do it wrong, you have to wait about another 40 years to redevelop.”

According to a state comptroller’s report, the state has recovered from the recession somewhat stronger than had been expected, leading to positive expectations for fiscal 2013.

The underlying cause for the increase in revenue estimates is job creation, according to the state report. Denton County’s average unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in 2008 and jumped to 7.1 percent the following year. The county’s unemployment rate for 2012 dropped to 6.1 percent.

“It’s hard to predict the next recession, but as city leaders, we need to use what we have,” Hammett said. “As things continue to improve, we need to take advantage of it and make investments that will lead to our long-term growth.

Hammett said cities should make investments now even though it could take several years to get anything in return.

“You want to be ready before someone shows interest,” he said. “If they see you’re not ready for them to plug in, then they’ll move on to the next city.”

JOHN D. HARDEN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is jharden@dentonrc.com .


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