If the city of Mansfield could make a New Year’s resolution for 2015, it might be to have another year like 2014.
Mansfield closes a year that saw its strongest recovery from the Great Recession, marked by a hefty growth in the tax base and budget revenues and a raft of new business and residential developments. New municipal building projects like a police tactical training center are well under way this year, and a new major park opened.
“The city has had growth over all sectors,” reported Mayor David Cook. “We’re growing with high-quality residential and retail construction. The medical corridor is bursting at the seams. It’s certainly attracting people to here as well.”
For Fire Chief Barry Bondurant, the success of 2014 is measured by what didn’t happen.
“Most importantly, on the fire side, we didn’t have any fire fatalities and no serious injuries to any firefighter,” Bondurant said. “So we’ve had a very successful year.”
There was a little political intrigue, provided by two anonymous letters to City Hall that challenged the legal residency of two council members.
The Mansfield school district had a busy year as well, building new schools and facilities and adjusting attendance zones to adapt to growth, while extending the district’s iPad program to middle schoolers.
Here is the year in review, a roughly month-by-month account:
The year started on a refreshing note with the January grand opening of the $3 million first phase of Elmer W. Oliver Nature Park, 1650 Matlock Road, 80 acres of hills, trees, meadows and ponds touched only by crushed-granite trails and lookout decks over Walnut Creek. Unlike the city’s other 520 acres of parkland, Oliver Park has no playgrounds or sports fields, and is dedicated to field trips and pond-side classes for students and adults. Toward that end, the city hired a naturalist to plan programs at the park.
Streets and public safety
After borrowing $16.1 million in December 2013 for street and public safety projects that were part of a scrapped bond package, the city began arranging to build a police tactical training center with a firing range, renovate Fire Station No. 2, expand the dispatch center and animal control center, purchase a ladder truck and an ambulance and pay for acquired land.
The dispatch center is operational and in use now, and the training center is expected to open in early 2015. The ladder truck, or quint, has been purchased, and the renovated fire station had its grand reopening ceremony in December. Also, with the new ambulance came expanded fire service. “We have four staffed ambulances 24-7,” Bondurant said.
Methodist Mansfield Medical Center announced plans to build a second patient tower, nearly identical to the first. Construction on the 110,000-square-foot, $118 million tower started in the spring and in December reached a milestone when the highest beam was installed as part of a “topping out” ceremony. The hospital, which opened Dec. 27, 2006, as the crown jewel of the city’s burgeoning medical district, projects it will finish the tower in November.
Complaints about gas drilling operations prompted the City Council to approve an ordinance that included banning fracking on Sundays and required gas companies to tie into the city’s electrical grid and turn off the diesel-powered generators, reducing noise and fumes. But complaints would continue to grow, as a neighborhood group demanded stricter emission controls and health and safety protections, and greater setbacks than the city’s current minimum buffer of 600 feet between a well and homes, day cares, medical facilities and other uses.
In December council work session, the group – Mansfield Gas Well Awareness – was granted a seat at the table along with several drilling companies and state agencies. After that three-hour discussion, the council asked staff to draft potential ordinance revisions for the council to consider, possibly in January.
Texas 360 Tollway
The biggest road project affecting Mansfield – the extension of the Texas 360 main highway lanes through the city – was approved by state and regional agencies in February. The 10-mile, $300 million highway lanes will be toll lanes, although the existing frontage roads will remain toll free. Construction could begin in 2015 and finish in 2018.
Another road project of import is the nearly completed Heritage Parkway bridge over the Union Pacific railroad tracks in southeast Mansfield. Expected to open by March, it will serve as a major east-west thoroughfare, relieving congestion on Broad Street and giving trucks a direct and less invasive route from the industrial parks to Texas 360, officials said.
The Mansfield school board voted to redraw the attendance zones for Timberview and Lake Ridge high schools, Danny Jones and James Coble middle schools and Mary Lillard and Della Icenhower intermediate schools. The action responded to overcrowding at Lillard, which at the time had 1,024 students in a school designed for 1,000. Students who live in the northern part of the Lillard and Jones attendance zone would be sent to Icenhower and Coble, which have capacities for 1,000 students but had fewer than 700 students each.
The 144-year-old Bethlehem Baptist Church – believed to be the oldest African-American church in Tarrant County, and second oldest overall – opened its 5,500-square-foot Kidz Zone to expand its private Christian school, the Bethlehem Academy. It’s currently configured as kindergarten through second grade, but church leaders want to add a grade level each year.
The city’s two biggest entertainment draws – Hawaiian Falls and Big League Dreams sports complex, neighbors in far southeast Mansfield that both opened in 2008 – were producing impressively big revenues for city coffers as part of their public-private partnerships with the city. Hawaiian Falls’ revenue-sharing deal with the city topped the $1 million mark after the 2013 season. Big League Dreams, whose agreement didn’t require revenue sharing until 2011, has since contributed nearly $500,000, city officials said.
Organizers of Mansfield’s Night on the Town, traditionally held at Town Park, divvied up the three-part series of movies under the stars and other entertainment among Town Park and two other parks. The goal was to spark more interest in the series, which also features a scavenger hunt, karaoke and a park clean-up.
A proposed $11.1 million plan to make Mansfield streets more bike friendly – posting signs, striping bike lanes and even expanding roads for bike lanes -- faced an uphill battle against a frugal City Council. The park staff and a hired consultant continued paring back the options until May, when a divided council narrowly approved a long-range on-street bike master plan, along with a minimal initial investment, mostly for street signs and some lane markings.
Under the 30-year, $6.78 million master plan, the city would spend $100,000 over the next three years – using the park board’s sales tax revenues, not city operating funds. Any additional funding would require council review.
When East Mansfield residents got wind that a new Walmart might be coming to town, they nipped it in the bud. More than 100 of them packed the City Council chambers to oppose it, citing concerns about increased noise, traffic, light pollution and crime. Walmart’s conceptual plans for a 23-acres tract, in the southeast quadrant of East Broad Street and North Holland Road, got a cool reception from council members. City officials expected the giant retailer to submit its formal rezoning application in July but said it hasn’t so far.
A project to build a 53,000-square-foot shopping center at Matlock Road and Debbie Lane turned out to involve the son of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones – Stephen Jones, a top executive in the Cowboys business and part owner of the 7.6-acre site. A Sprouts Farmers Market will be the 26,000-square-foot anchor, joined by Dunkin’ Donuts, a hair salon, nail salon and day spa, and a dentist.
Sonic Drive-In across East Broad Street from Mansfield High School is getting some competition for its share of lunch money. The council approved site plans for a Chicken Express next door to the Sonic at 3120 E. Broad St. in July, after approving a building permit for a Dairy Queen next to the Chicken Express.
A sun-powered car built by a group of students at Ben Barber Career Tech Academy – a nearly yearlong project -- took to the road in the Solar Car Challenge, a four-day race that started with laps at the Texas Motor Speedway and finished in Austin. It’s their third car and their fastest, with a projected top speed of 60 mph. The car cost $10,000 to build, using student labor and school funding along with sponsor contributions. The students feel their work is contributing to the solar industry’s effort to make the alternate energy source more affordable, said Eric Lucas, one of the veterans of past car projects and a senior this year.
“That’s kind of what we’re showing – how inexpensive it is,” he said at the time. “If a bunch of high school kids can build a car that races off of solar energy, then it can work for houses.”
Far South Mansfield is having its day. Three developers with three major projects totaling more than 1,100 acres outlined their plans to the City Council this year, and all have been approved.
North Rock Real Estate, which owns 870 acres north of the intersection of U.S. 287 and Texas 360, plans to kick off its South Pointe development with a 140-acre, 442-home development that would include construction of an east-west thoroughfare connecting the two highways. Also, the McCaslin family of developers in Mansfield proposed a 555-acre development of residential and retail-commercial uses, mostly located south of FM 917 and west of South Main Street, or Business 287. It includes 1,200 single-family lots and 40 acres of commercial development. The McCaslins also have 266 adjoining acres to be developed later.
Between those two proposed developments lies Somerset, a planned 456-acre development of houses, apartments and businesses along the west side of U.S. 287, from Lone Star Road south to Texas 360. It includes 1,061 single-family lots, 31 acres of multi-family housing, including apartments and townhouses. Officials of the developer, Hanover Property Co., said the project would be upscale and include trails, lakes and an amenity center. But they met council resistance to the 18 acres of apartments in the proposal. The council gave first-round approval to the Somerset development but made it clear that the apartments needed to disappear before the plans return for the second of three votes. Hanover did return with plans that didn’t include apartments, and now they are negotiating with the city on sharing infrastructure costs.
The police department underwent a major overhaul, officially disbanding its city marshal service and swearing in all 17 of them as Mansfield police officers. Chief Marshal Tracy Aaron was named chief of police, as then-Police Chief Gary Fowler, who said he was looking at eventual retirement, stepped down to the rank of assistant police chief at his own recommendation.
Fowler said the marshals service was dissolved partly for better efficiency but also to ease confusion among many residents about the duties of city marshals. Fowler, who has worked 24 years for the department, said he and Aaron had been working on the reorganization periodically for a year.
Among all the efforts to breathe life into the historic downtown, none has smelled as good as the most recent player – Mellow Mushroom. The boutique pizzeria opened in August nearly two years after the owners, Kim and Montie Slawson, began shopping for potential Mansfield sites for the third Mushroom in their franchise. They bought the old Station House in the southeast corner of East Broad and Main streets, which once served as City Hall, library, police department and jail. The building, constructed in 1956, was demolished in July 2013 to make room for the $2.5 million pizza project, featuring custom art in the 6,000-square-foot interior, and a 1,000-square-foot patio with a performance stage.
With Mellow Mushroom as the new downtown anchor, city officials have been working to lure other commerce. Cook said a couple of restaurants have shown interest in a four-acre, city-owned property at Smith and Elm Streets, just off the 100 block of North Main Street, the epicenter of the historic downtown area.
In preparation for that anticipated commerce, the city is nearly finished with a new, concrete, well-lit parking lot with 68 spaces, in the northwest corner of West Broad Street and Walnut Street.
The city’s property values and other tax revenues surged over the past year, allowing budget makers to play a little catch-up with frozen staff vacancies, denied requests for equipment and vehicles and delayed street projects. Property tax rolls increased by almost 7 percent -- much of it from new construction – to $35.6 million, sales tax revenues by 3 percent to $9 million, and building-permit revenues by 8 percent to $1.4 million. The revenues fueled the 2014-15 city operating budget of $44.2 million, a 5 percent increase over last year, while the property tax rate remained at 71 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The budget included three new police positions and staff merit raises of up to 3 percent, as well as $1.7 million for 10 police cars and other vehicles and emergency equipment, expansion of the library parking lot and minor interior improvements, and an upgrade of audio-video equipment in the City Council chambers.
Mansfield for the fourth time earned a ranking on Money Magazine’s annual list of Best Places to Live in America. Mansfield made 17th on the list of 50 cities with populations of 50,000 to 300,000 people, the highest mark so far. The magazine’s judges cited Mansfield’s burgeoning medical district and the city’s proximity to urban centers while maintaining the “friendly feel of the wheat-farming community that was settled by pioneers in the 1850s.”
The 97-year-old Farr Best Theater unveiled a makeover, including fresh interior and exterior paint, an art deco marquee and an overhaul of the sound system to improve the music-performance experience for patrons. The 153-seat theater as a live-music venue is only its latest incarnation. It started as a movie theater and later was home to a church, then live theater for many years.
The school district celebrated the opening of the new Ron Whitson Agricultural Science Center, honoring a popular ag teacher who worked 27 years in the district before leaving in 2007 for a position at the Texas Education Agency. The $3.2 million complex includes an 11,000-square-foot show arena, two 10,000-square-foot barns for students’ animals, vegetable garden, greenhouse, trails, three ponds and a fish hatchery.
Smaller hands, smaller iPads
The school district decided that its 2012 initiative to give all high school students and teachers their own iPad tablet to use at school and home has been successful enough to extend it to seventh- and eighth-graders in the district’s six middle schools. The school board voted unanimously to provide 5,174 iPad Mini 2 tablets for those students, at a cost of $2.25 million. Two years ago, the district spent $6.5 million buying iPads for its 9,000 high school students and 500 teachers.
What do restaurants with drive-through service and medical waste facilities have in common? In Mansfield, they have to get permission from the City Council to do business. The council imposed 90-day and 120-day moratoriums on those proposed businesses, respectively, to allow time for considering regulations. The council decided that they should file for specific-use permits, which require council review. In the formal ordinance revisions drawn up and approved later, the medical waste facilities wanting to locate in Mansfield also would be restricted to areas with the city’s most intensive industrial zoning.
Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers was the first to get its site approved after the city lifted the restaurant moratorium.
The restaurant rules were sparked by concerns about pedestrian safety and traffic congestion around service windows, especially when restaurants are near each other.
The Ben Barber Career Tech Academy will be adding 44,000 square feet to help the school keep up with the popularity of its technical classes. The $10.4 million expansion will increase the entire facility to about 225,000 square feet, providing capacity for an additional 2,500 students, above the 8,000 that will take classes there this year. It will include a welding and metal fabricating lab, smart hospital, video production studio with sound booths, pharmacy lab, three kitchens and a new Savvy’s Bistro.
Two anonymous letters caused a stir at City Hall this month. The first to arrive included documents suggesting that City Councilwoman Wendy Burgess lived outside the district for a period of time, violating the city charter requirement that council members live in the city limits not only during their service but at least a year before they’re sworn into office. The second made a similar claim about Councilman Stephen Lindsey’s residency, but also alleged that he had missed enough meetings to violate the charter.
Lindsey was able to document that the house in Arlington where he was accused of living actually was purchased by his wife after their divorce. Lindsey’s name was on the documents because he co-signed for the mortgage as part of his divorce decree. The council dismissed the matter. The city secretary checked the attendance records and reported to the mayor that Lindsey did not have a significant number of unexcused absences.
The council handled Burgess’ case differently, hiring an outside investigator to look into the allegations and documentation. Mayor David Cook said that was necessary because Burgess “has temporarily lived outside of Mansfield, which is appropriate under the law at times, and the council needed a legal determination and recommendation.” A violation of the charter’s residency and attendance requirements can result in expulsion from office. The investigator’s report to the council is expected in January.
St. Jude Catholic Church, which started the year in a new 25,000-square-foot church building on its campus, ended the year on the radio. This month the church launched KYRE-LP 104.1 FM, the first radio station in Mansfield in decades, long-timers said. St. Jude eventually will air some of its services and maybe produce some local programming, but mostly the station will carry the round-the-clock messages of the Alabama-based EWTN Global Network.
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641