Mayor who led Euless through transition is leaving

05/14/2014 9:26 PM

05/14/2014 11:44 PM

In the late 1990s, as other cities in Northeast Tarrant County boomed with upscale retail destinations, Euless was struggling with its identity.

In Hurst, North East Mall was undergoing a $200 million renovation. Grapevine Mills was flourishing just north of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. And Southlake Town Square was gaining momentum as a major development.

Euless, meanwhile, was striking out on its own retail hot spot — Bear Creek Fashion Mall — at Airport Freeway and Texas 360.

“We spent years going to meetings and meetings and meetings about Bear Creek Fashion Mall. After all the years of listening to what it was going to be, to the changes, to more people being involved, we realized it just wasn’t going to happen,” Mayor Mary Lib Saleh said. “… It seemed to us that it was a pipe dream.”

With the mall no longer in the picture, Saleh, elected in 1993, and City Council members did not want to be left behind.

“The council knew we needed to do something to make Euless more viable and more livable,” Saleh said. “We were a small town, one-third located in the airport. We didn’t have big industry at the time. We didn’t have anything that you’d say, ‘Wow! What’s going on in Euless?’ ”

So officials decided to create a massive park complex, featuring baseball, softball and soccer fields, playgrounds, walking trails and covered picnic areas. Nearby, they would build a golf course, Texas Star, that would become one of the state’s top municipal courses.

Saleh said the highly successful sports complex is one of the crowning achievements of her time as mayor in the city of 51,500, the fifth-largest in Tarrant County. Saleh, 83, is stepping down after 21 years as mayor and four years as a council member before that.

She likes to point out that the city has made many more improvements in recent years — from new facilities to public art — without raising the tax rate.

“We have changed the city to enhance it with beautiful gardens, plantings that were all done in house by our parks department,” Saleh said. “We have a major piece of artwork on every city facility that is publicly used so the public can enjoy the artwork.”

Thank you, car renters

Facilities built or renovated during Saleh’s tenure include the library, City Hall, a Family Life Center, an aquatic park, a police station and three fire stations.

Some of the work, such as the library, was paid for with a half-cent sales tax, Saleh said. Other projects have been paid for with cash, much of it from folks who rent cars at DFW Airport.

Fortunately for Euless residents, the part of the city that’s within the airport’s borders became home to a central car rental facility serving the major rental companies.

Through agreements worked out by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the tax revenue from those rentals is divided equally among Fort Worth, Dallas and Euless. The first check Euless got, on May 10, 2000, was for $2,079,023, city spokeswoman Betsy Deck said.

In total, the city has received $54.1 million from car rentals, Deck said.

The council agreed to put one-third of the rental revenue into the city budget, one-third into reserves and one-third into community improvement projects, Saleh said.

“That helped get us through the economic downturn,” she said. “During the downturn, we did not raise taxes and we did not cut services. What we cut were extras that we, as a council and staff, got — like trips for conferences.”

‘Glamorous and busy’

Saleh and her colleagues have also pushed for the revitalization of Texas 10 and the development of Glade Parks.

Texas 10, which began as a dirt road named Texas 15, eventually grew into Texas 183, the first four-lane highway in Tarrant County and once the best way to get from Fort Worth to Dallas.

Airport Freeway eventually took over 183, and the highway now known as Texas 10 suffered.

But even that worm has turned. Now a six-lane thoroughfare, Texas 10 is known as Euless Boulevard within the city limits and includes a mix of subdivisions and businesses, many of which have made significant investments in their properties, and many vacant spaces have been filled.

Texas 10 is also the way to Texas Star Golf Course and Conference Centre, the Parks at Texas Star, Dr Pepper StarCenter and Softball World — the aforementioned sports complex.

Glade Parks, a residential and retail project near the Colleyville border that has been in the works since 2007, has been an up-and-down development.

Euless has pumped more than $5 million into the infrastructure, only to see the original developer, Rubloff Development Group in Rockford, Ill., file for bankruptcy.

A real estate equity firm has since taken control of the project, and Saleh is confident that it will someday reach fruition.

“… It was very disappointing when it went bankrupt,” Saleh said. “That was two big malls we’d lost. One of them is coming through, though, and it will be glamorous and busy.”

Back to its roots

Arbor Daze, an annual festival that celebrates all things trees, has also seen highs and lows during Saleh’s years as mayor.

At its zenith, Arbor Daze was bringing in nationally known entertainment such as The Dixie Chicks, The Beach Boys and Asleep at the Wheel, attracting crowds of more than 200,000.

But in 2004, the event was rained out for two days, costing Euless about $250,000. Then the 2005 festival lost half a day to weather.

So city leaders canceled the 2006 festival and asked residents what to do next. As it turned out, they wanted it to be mostly for them.

A scaled-down Arbor Daze came back in 2007.

While the circumstances surrounding the festival’s downsizing disappointed Saleh, she said, returning Arbor Daze to its roots as a small-town celebration was the right thing to do. The festival was moved from a large field to the area around City Hall.

“We were the only city in the United States that won the national Arbor Days award twice,” Saleh said. “I was really disappointed. But we had a lot of public hearings, and the citizens wanted to go back to City Hall.”

This year’s festival drew 5,500 people and cost $70,000, Deck said.

As disappointing as that experience was, Saleh had a much worse time a year into her first term. A recall election was forced by a petition signed by 250 people, led by a woman the Star-Telegram said had a grudge against Saleh.

But when the results were counted, 1,374 had voted against the recall and 247 for — three fewer than on the original petition.

Despite having effectively won a vote of confidence after a year on the job, Saleh would like to forget that it happened.

“I had rather not dwell on the recall election, because so many positive things have happened since then and I do not even know if the person involved still lives in the city,” Saleh said.

“I have always been a positive person and try to find the good in others and not dwell on the naysayers because most of them are uninformed.”

‘She taught me well’

Saleh has earned respect since then, too.

“Mayor Saleh was a dedicated public servant, creative and hardworking, who enjoyed tremendous support and respect throughout her career,” said Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate, the longest-serving mayor in Northeast Tarrant County.

“She was strong in her belief and served as a good example to her peers. She chose to retire only after she had added to the rich heritage of Euless and improved the lifestyle of its people.”

Saleh took the gavel from Harold D. Samuels in 1993 and will pass it to her successor at the May 27 council meeting.

Mayor-elect Linda Martin — only the city’s third mayor since 1975 — said she is determined to continue the progressiveness of the last two mayors.

A California transplant, Martin said she fell in love with Euless when she settled there in 1984. She has studied under Saleh since joining the council in 2004.

“The California girl is gone, and the Texas girl is here,” Martin said. “Mary Lib leaves a big pair of boots to fill. She is the epitome of a gracious Southern lady, and she taught me well.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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