FORT WORTH (CBSDFW.COM) – Infrastructure, economic development, education, and mobility needs. These were listed by Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker (D) as some of the top issues facing the city.
Mayor Parker recently sat down with Jack Fink to discuss those issues and what she’s doing to fix them.
Jack Fink: As you know, May 7 is the big bond election in Fort Worth. $560M. $360M for streets and mobility, $124M for parks and recreation, $12.5M for a new library in Northwest Fort Worth, $39M for police and fire facilities, and $15 million for what’s called the ‘Open Spaces’ Program. Why is this so important for the city to do all of it?
Mayor Parker: Well, first of all, we’re the fastest growing city in the country, which is hard to believe for many people that have grown up or lived here. Multiple generations for Fort Worthians. But with that comes an immense responsibility, just to keep up with the infrastructure and needs to provide high quality city services. This bond is really about that you mentioned 66% of the bond is on streets and pedestrian mobility. That’s where it should be focused with transportation needs across the entire city of Fort Worth. And then the other projects were really carefully selected capital projects across the city to make sure we’re keeping up with the growth and the needs for all of community in Fort Worth.
Jack Fink: Congress passed and the President signed an infrastructure bill. Is the city getting any money from that? And is this going to be basically leveraging that money to take it even further?
Mayor Parker: It’s important to know that we leveraged money alongside Tarrant County and this bond election. Tarrant County did a bond election. About $200M dollars of it are transportation projects that we partnered with them on. So, many of these partner projects across the county wouldn’t have been possible without that partnership. We’re very thankful for the county administration. Now, once we pass this bond, hopefully after May 7, we’ll get to work really quickly on these other projects across the city. The infrastructure bill is mainly on larger scale projects and we’re working with the North Central Texas Council of Governments and of course, with TxDOT and other other partners, our congressional delegation on what those projects should be. The rulemaking is not over yet. So, I think at the same time for Fort Worth people, you’ll see, hey, look, you’ve got a bond, hopefully passing that 66% of that bond was on transportation, mobility. You also got additional draw down dollars to the state of Texas that we’ll have for infrastructure projects as well.
Jack Fink: When you talk about mobility, are you just talking about improving the streets as far as widening the streets and expanding them to keep up with the the population growth? Or you’re looking at other ideas to try to help people get from place A to place B?
Mayor Parker: I think it’s multiple different ways of looking at projects like this. First of all, you do need more lanes, you need wider roads across across the city of Fort Worth, especially at North and those East, West corridors that are so problematic for people to get on the I-35, we’re going on to 820, making sure people can get around in high growth areas. Secondly, you need to use context sensitive design, especially in our urban environments around neighborhoods that also create and spur economic development opportunities. I use this example a lot because I think it’s really solid. As you look near South side right now, in South main specifically, that was a city project infrastructure project…You would not see this awesome private development you’re seeing across the entire area. Lastly, you also need to think about pedestrian mobility, meaning people that are walking, riding their bicycles, folks that may be using transit. There’s money in this bond package to help support the re-development of East Lancaster corridor, which also would have a transit component. Those are partnership projects, of course with Trinity Metro and North Central Texas Council of of Governments. So, I think there’s something in this bond package, especially in mobility for everybody.
Jack Fink: Talk to me about this Open Spaces Program. What is that?
Mayor Parker: I actually got a briefing yesterday and city council and work session from staff. It started several years ago in partnership with the Trust for Public Land to understand what it looks like to be one of the fastest growing cities in the country. We lose over 50 acres to development in Fort Worth, which, get your mind around that for a second. We have to keep up with that in a responsible way. So how do we protect our environmentally sensitive areas, land adjacent to Parkland places in Fort Worth that are really at risk to be overdeveloped and make sure you have this beautiful green space open and available to people and future generations in Fort Worth. We’re hopeful this $50M fund will help us really spur those opportunities. We purchased three properties, most notably was probably the Tandy Hills project or Broadcast Hill that was purchased in partnership with our other residents in East Fort Worth. There’s some other other projects across Fort Worth. We’re really excited about expanding. It’s really just getting people outside enjoying the beauty of Fort Worth and Texas. But you can’t do that if you over-develop.
Jack Fink: How concerned are you about opposition to any of these bond measures?
Mayor Parker: I think first of all, we started this process over two years ago with city staff carefully understanding what are what’s financially feasible for the city, what’s responsible to taxpayers, there’s no tax rate increase in this bond election. So, $560M of critical infrastructure projects that we know are needed to provide high quality services and quality of life to our residents. You always have questions from residents. Usually it’s just as a lack of information. We’ve worked really hard, hundreds of public meetings, you’ll start to see additional information. I appreciate your coverage of this bond election so people know to get out and vote on May 7. That’s the most important obstacle we’ll be facing is this complacency and people not knowing how important this bond election is for their own future in their own neighborhoods.
Jack Fink: How do taxpayers know that they’re actually going to get their money’s worth out of this and that money that is approved to be spent is actually spent and doesn’t just sit there for years and years and years on unfinished projects?
Mayor Parker: I think the proof is in our actions at the City of Fort Worth. We’ve under undertaken a significant process internally, led by property management and others, to really make sure we’re delivering our projects on time. Our last bond election in 2018, we’re almost done delivering those projects. So, we’re ready to get started in this next bond election. There’s nothing more frustrating as a taxpayer like, yeah, I’ll prove those bond projects, and then nothing happens with those. Importantly, sometimes you have to partner with our private sector partners, especially on utility relocation, easement work, and engineering projects to make sure that these are shovel-ready projects once the bond is approved.
Jack Fink: Equity was added to the list of criteria that was considered for these priority projects. What is that exactly? What does that mean and why is it important?
Mayor Parker: It really means looking at majority minority population areas, census blocks across the city of Fort Worth, and asking the question: How can we benefit those populations with some of these bond projects? So, with using an equity lens is really just fairness across the city. Sometimes the tendency in city government was the loudest person might get the project. That no longer happens. These are carefully vetted by multiple departments to make sure we’re getting this right on behalf of citizens. I think you’ll see a multitude different projects that all neighborhoods can be excited about. This was our first time to really do that in this bond election and I think it created an additional excitement from residents that have heard more about it.
Jack Fink: Does that mean that it’s serving underserved areas?
Mayor Parker: It’s not that the city hasn’t been doing that in the past, but we didn’t have a mechanism we’re really tracking and using data to make informed decisions. This bond package was our first delivery of that.
Jack Fink: It’s all about the data.
Mayor Parker: Absolutely. As it should be.
ONE YEAR AS MAYOR
Jack Fink: You’ve been Mayor for almost a year already.
Mayor Parker: It’s hard to believe that.
Jack Fink: I’m wondering what this year has been like for you. What have you learned?
Mayor Parker: A tremendous amount. I say, the first six months, your just trying to get your feet underneath you. Obviously, hiring staff and the multitude of issues that we’re facing the city of Fort Worth. Remember, I was elected in June. So, you still had outstanding meetings that were happening. You had business that had kind of clogged up because of the election cycle. Then, we immediately went into a new budget cycle. I learned time management is really important. A reminder, I have two young children at home and my husband, David. Our boys are five, almost six, he reminds me, and 11. Their schedules come first and those are the balls I can’t drop. So, building this life of being a public servant, and being mayor of a high profile, high growth city, around their schedules can be really difficult. But, I feel like I’m finally hitting my stride a bit and understanding where our goals and focus needs to be. I always joke I can’t chase squirrels. I don’t have time for that, right? We got to be really intentional with everyone’s time and make sure we’re achieving the things on behalf of Fort Worth that I promised on the campaign trail, and importantly, are really critical for the city of Fort Worth future.
Jack Fink: What do you see as the most important issue facing the city right now? Why? And What are you doing about it?
Mayor Parker: I think a few different categories that connect development and education, which are really linked together. Infrastructure, mobility needs, which we’re talking about in this bond election. We’ll keep talking about them even after the bond hopefully passes on May 7. Lastly, I think this this understanding of what it means to be a high growth world class city, and attracting and retaining top talent in the city of Fort Worth. You’ve probably watched and probably covered stories about the fleeing of coastal cities, and why people are leaving specific cities across the United States. I think the number one factor is quality of life and making sure we’re making decisions that enhance quality of life for all residents in the city. When you think about economic development, education, you have to do this in a multitude different ways. You have to support small business, you have to support the businesses that have really grown and been in Fort Worth for decades, making sure they feel the support from city administration and chambers across the city. You also need to understand: What does it look like for the future of workforce in the city of Fort Worth and in Tarrant County? We have to invest differently, Jack, in our students that sit in classrooms today. They deserve our utmost attention. An entire community has to rally around traditional ISD’S, charter educators, private school, homeschool families and stop pitting families against each other. Those kids are the future of Fort Worth. Right now their academic futures is in jeopardy mostly because of COVID-19 and what the disconnect from school really meant. Sometimes it may have felt strange that a mayor is spending so much time focused on this area. These are these are critical people to the future of our community and we need to think differently about education in the city and it absolutely. So that kind of development.
FORT WORTH SCHOOLS
Jack Fink: Is Fort Worth ISD Making the Grade?
Mayor Parker: Not right now, no. We’re one of the lowest performing school districts in the state of Texas urban districts. But look, pointing the finger at school board trustees or superintendents is not the answer. Pointing the finger at teachers, which has been happening is absolutely not the answer. When you have urban districts across this country that are most successful and you ask the critical questions, why? It’s because an entire community, business leaders, neighborhoods, churches have all rallied around a district and said: What do you need to help support the families and children that are in those classrooms? I also remind you that Fort Worth ISD is only half of the students in Fort Worth. They have about 75,000 students now the other half of our students attend other districts across the city. So, my intention is not just on the largest district, but on those other school districts across our across our community that really need our support as well. I think ask the tough questions, you know, what do you need? What should we be asking to achieve the academic outcomes that our parents deserve for their own students that sit in those classrooms?
Jack Fink: Are the other school districts who serve Fort Worth students making the grade?
Mayor Parker: There are several that are. I think you can point to Northwest ISD and Keller ISD. I’m really proud of the innovation that Castleberry ISD and Crowley ISD continues to climb. Everman… I can keep going down the list. I mean, we’ve got school districts that are doing, they’re doing high caliber work with the student bodies. They’re also thinking differently in what it looks like to train the next generation of workforce. We’re actually going to celebrate students in May and then we’ll announce those details in a few weeks about what it looks like to support to support students who are maybe graduating from our early college high schools. We have early college high schools that are partnership with TCC. These kids are graduating with an associate’s degree, a college degree Jack, at the same time they’re graduating from high school. I would love a moment when we all celebrate every single high school student in the city of Fort Worth that’s graduating with a college degree before high school. That’s what I think it takes to have a workforce for tomorrow.
Jack Fink: What more does Fort Worth ISD need to do to make the grade?
Mayor Parker: The most important thing they’ve got to do is focus on hiring the next leader for that school district. They’ve selected a search firm. We obviously know that Dr. Scribner is retiring. Who is going to lead the school district as the next innovative leader, transformative leader for the school district? That will be the number one focus for the school board. I think they need to do so in partnership with business leaders, with our office, with community, and with parents to understand what they want to see in a leader. Second is listen to parents. Right now parents across the country, that may be Republican or Democrat or Independent, they all seem frustrated. Parents are trying to make the right decision in education and I think our school districts have struggled with how to communicate the good things that are happening, the things they are struggling with, and it’s all playing out in our school board rooms. Sometimes, you have residents come that are angry or confused about an issue. We have to be patient and work through that, you know, with constituent by constituent. I think school districts Fort Worth are no different than others across the country have really struggled with that, and how to better communicate the needs of their district and what they’re doing about it. I hate that for them and I want them to kind of rally around it differently. I have talked to our school board leaders, I’ve talked to teachers and principals, especially those that are in the classroom. They’re just trying to teach these kids and they need different resources to get the job done.
Jack Fink: Crime, violent crime. My statistics, which we’re talking about people, it looked like there was a 27-year high in the number of homicides last year,118. That’s a 69% increase from 2019. What’s going on and are you confident in the plan that your chief has put in place?
Mayor Parker: Yes, I’m confident in the plan that Chief Noakes and his command staff have put in place. Fort Worth Safe was actually introduced last summer as an initiative to really fight violent crime. We’re continuing that initiative and we announced a few weeks ago that we’re back in action. I think that the the plan is really based on evidence. Evidence-based policing across the country, what we know fights back violent crime. You have to have a no tolerance for this and it’s a special response unit that they’re utilizing to really fight violent crime. Any perpetrators that are treating residents the way they are right now have to be taken off the streets. Working with our prosecution of DHS office, working with judges on bonds, all those things working together are important. And then making sure police officers have the resources they need. I think it’s important for the community to understand is this is not the policing the Weed and Seed strategy you may have seen in the 80s and 90s. We have the technology now to really focus on an individual person, even if they live in a specific neighborhood to get them out of that neighborhood. You don’t have to bring policing to a high level in every single neighborhood to make that happen.
Jack Fink: What do you make of these, seemingly, disagreements between downtown businesses? For example, the Sundance Square. We saw Riata, the well-known restaurant, is leaving. What do you make of all this?
Mayor Parker: Well, first of all, the City of Fort Worth downtown corridor, the core of downtown is 355 acres, which is hard for people to believe. Tremendous opportunity. Sundance has been a jewel, sort of the living room of Fort Worth, since it opened. It’s only 26 acres and it’s privately held. It’s private development. There’s a lot of frustration, mostly around the miscommunication and the strategy, the vision for for Sundance, you have to point those questions to Sundance leadership. But as your mayor, I’m committed to trying to create a better vision for all of downtown. Harmony and better communication with all parties. That’s what I’ve been focused on. Is it reasonable for people to be frustrated? Absolutely. Sometimes change is really hard, and right now, people are kind of afraid for the future of downtown for a variety of different reasons. But, I’m still confident that while it can be frustrating right now, we’re going to get there and it takes a lot of careful planning, not just by Sunday square leadership, but by everybody downtown, to really think about the future of your highest growth city in the country in a downtown corridor. Remember, you’ve got the Texas A&M expansion, that’s exciting. You’ve got the convention center expansion, you’ve got the future Panther Island. It will double the size of downtown. All these are incredible factors and I think bode well for our future.