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Kim Phillips: Denton to remain relevant during highway project

Last Sunday was a beautiful day for a drive. I gave myself plenty of time to relax and enjoy it. A little travel cooler held cold bottles of water, apples, almonds and other favorite road-trip snacks on the passenger seat beside me. Favorite CDs were stacked in the console. Bags packed, car washed and tank full, I headed south at 1:30 p.m.

The first event of the two-day meeting in Salado was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. With five hours to make the three-hour trek, I planned to dawdle along the way. Cruising was smooth. I’m sure I looked very cool sailing along with the wind in my hair, favorite oldies cranked up on the stereo.

Around Hillsboro, everything changed. All illusions of cool vanished. Dawdling dreams died. As far as I could see in the distance, southbound traffic on Interstate 35 was at a standstill. From that point to the Salado exit, about 84 miles, top speed was 40 mph, average perhaps 25 mph.

At 6:45 p.m., my 15-minute-late arrival was anything but fashionable. What should have been a three-hour drive became a five-hour traffic nightmare. I was tired, stressed and quite uncool. I was not alone. Others from the Dallas-Fort Worth area arrived late and just as irked.

This story is true. The facts have not been exaggerated.

In Denton County, the Interstate 35E expansion initiative could cause similar dilemmas for years to come. Given that, according to TxDOT, the average daily traffic count along the I-35E corridor will double in the next 15 years, the construction is an absolutely necessary evil. And we are starting to feel the pain as the project digs into our sector of the freeway. For us, it is just beginning.

In a recent TED talk about relevance, Rick Warren said, “When the speed of change around you becomes faster than the speed of change within you, then you become irrelevant.” This is the case for I-35E. The roadway is irrelevant to the demand for its purpose.

The population explosion underway in Texas is pushing infrastructure to many levels beyond the maximum. Even now, too many cars on the interstate has traffic dragging. I cannot fathom what doubling the already way-too-many vehicles will be like. Short day trips will be long, weary days — dreaded and avoided whenever possible.

Even today, colleagues in San Antonio lament the drop in tourism from DFW, once their strongest drive market. Traffic is definitely a culprit, they say. I don’t doubt it. If that one-time five-hour drive is now a full day, then two days of a three-day weekend are shot just getting there and back. Who has time for that?

Salado feels the pain, too. Would-be visitors sometimes miss it completely. They are caught up in the snarl, focused on getting where they need to go, anxious over time lost.

So, do San Antonio and Salado hang their heads and hope for the best? They do not. Change is upon them, and they are adjusting for relevance. They are analyzing more appropriate target markets. Perhaps consumers in directions other than north make sense. Vacationers who fly rather than drive might be a good focus. Maybe San Antonio and neighbors like Salado will partner to break up the traffic experience by broadening how we North Texans perceive a San Antonio getaway to include destinations between here and there. The journey itself might become central to their message.

The only thing constant in this world is change. We know this. And we know the I-35E expansion project now underway in Denton is going to affect us. It also will affect those roadrunners and commuters who zoom up and down I-35E every day. These are consumers we take for granted but whose numbers may diminish as we get on down the construction road.

“Vision is the ability to see an opportunity within current circumstances and jump on it,” Warren said.

We must exercise corporate vision to see opportunity among the orange cones, closed lanes and equipment. Then we must act. Like we are doing today with “Dig Little d” and the Hickory Street improvement project downtown, collaborative creativity and adventurous spirit for trying new things are how we will jump on it. We commit to relevance, flexing with change as it occurs, except at the core of who we are. Through it all, we will remain Denton. Original. Independent.

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention & Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton’s original, independent spirit through the city’s sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at