At a crossroads
Texarkana enters new era of economic development
December 8, 2018
The expansion of the railroad system into Arkansas and Texas in the 1870s led to a town that would be called Texarkana. No one knew who coined the name, but one thing was for sure: transportation would be vital for the town’s success. Nearly 150 years later, so much and so little has changed. Texarkana is the halfway point between Dallas, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas. Interstate 30, Interstate 49 and future Interstate 369 all contribute to the city’s strategic geographic location. While the State of Texas has seen unparalleled growth and potential since the state diversified its economy after the oil boom, residents of Texarkana and others have questioned why the city’s growth and success has not mirrored that of Tyler, Longview or Waco, to name a few.
However, the creation of a nonprofit dedicated to changing the fate of the city and a joint meeting between Governors Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas and Greg Abbott of Texas have put into place historic efforts to attract businesses, create new jobs and educate the next generation of workers. The actions that are taken over the next few months, years and decades place Texarkana at a crossroads, both figuratively and literally.
Photo by Grace McGuire
Future of the Four States
Texarkana enters new era of economic development
A unified vision of regional growth has led to a new initiative to boost economic development of Southwest Arkansas and Northeast Texas. Both Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and Texas Governor Greg Abbott along with the Texarkana mayors announced the creation AR-TX Regional Economic Development Initiative, a new regional economic development nonprofit entity.
“REDI is a group that has formed with a board of directors that has put forth a lot of time, effort and personal finances to get this program off of the ground,” Texarkana, Texas, Mayor Bob Bruggeman said. “REDI will take a regional approach and will serve as a catalyst to promote economic development.”
REDI is dedicated to attracting and retaining businesses in the Texarkana region, and will work with both City Councils of Texarkana, Texas, and Texarkana, Arkansas, as well as the Chamber of Commerce on specific projects. The seven permanent members include Sonja Yates Hubbard, Cary Patterson, Emily Cutrer, James Henry Russell, Dean Barry and Steve Ledwell. These individuals have positions from being the president of TAMU-T to owning a manufacturing business.
“We instituted our own [nonprofit] corporation, and all of us have put [our] money into this. We have dedicated ourselves and placing our own money into this for five years,” REDI board member Dean Barry said. “We have gone out to raise other private money as well [because] we have to raise 800,000 to a million dollars a year for five years that we will operate our nonprofit with.”
The idea of REDI dawned in a daily walk one early morning with three Texarkana leaders.
“Chris Karam, James Henry Russell and I walk in the mornings together. Years ago, I started talking about how Texarkana was dead due to the lack of increase in the tax base in Bowie and Miller Counties in the past decade,” Barry said. “I kept screaming at the other two that Texarkana is nothing [compared to the rest of the State of Texas], so we have to change it.”
City officials, REDI and Texarkana residents all agree that a division between Texas and Arkansas in the past was the reason for the lack of economic development.
“There was not a concerted effort to try to get something done. I don’t think there has ever been anything like what we have established to try to get something done,” Barry said. “State Line has always been a bad place for Texarkana because [it pits] people against each other. I’d give anything for State Line to disappear because [Texarkana] does not need Arkansas fighting against Texas or vice versa.”
One of the factors that has sparked the creation of REDI is criticism of the little development that has taken place and that local businesses are the only way to truly undergo economic development.
“There has been activity in Texarkana, but when you bring in a new [chain] restaurant, all you’re doing is swapping dollars with another restaurant,” Barry said. “You’re not bringing in new money to Texarkana, [and] you’re not bringing in a business that’s bringing in new money for jobs.”
Economic development and how it is funded is commonly misunderstood. For instance, business attraction is only a small part of what Jerry Sparks, Economic Developer for Texarkana, Texas, does.
“Economic development is not one thing. It’s business attraction but also business retention and expansion. There is [another aspect] that we call gardening where if [someone] had a brilliant idea and wanted to take off with it, [the city] would try to help you grow your own business,” Sparks said. “Unlike REDI, [I] work for the city so that is a little different than most economic development organizations. Other organizations are commonly funded through a half cent sales tax, but we are funded through the general tax fund such as sales and property taxes, so we are slightly different.”
Texarkana’s strategic geographic position halfway between Dallas and Little Rock as well as major roads leading from New Orleans and Houston through Texarkana to Canada make the city ripe for growth. Not only are three Interstates projected to cross through Texarkana in the future, but the region also possesses an extensive railroad network consisting of three major railways and a close distance to many major markets.
“We are continuing to see a rapid increase of traffic on our interstate system, and we are poised for another interstate which is I-369 or I-69 which will mainly be an upgrade of U.S. Highway 59 between here and Houston. In the years to come, we are going to see more freight coming from the south because the port of Houston is being enlarged to allow larger ships and vessels to dock,” Bruggeman said. “As freight traffic comes from Houston, it is important that we have the right infrastructure to support that, and in some areas, we’re playing catch up with that. When we have three interstates passing through Texarkana, I can see us enhancing our distribution system and [attracting] distribution companies.”
Federally-funded projects such as the remainder of Interstate 49 to Fort Smith, Ark., and the stretch of Interstate 369 from Houston to Texarkana are expected to contribute the most to this growth from infrastructure. However, these mega-million dollar initiatives are years, even decades away from construction and completion.
“I was on a state advisory board committee for I-69, and dollarwise, it is a huge project. The section just between [Texarkana] and Houston is over $15 billion. Traffic will flow from the Panama Canal and the Gulf of Mexico to Houston and then up on I-69, so it will be vital,” Sparks said. “However, it is an expensive project and it will take a lot of political commitment to it.”
Texarkana leaders and other beneficiaries have lobbied state and federal legislators and governors to delegate state and federal funds for these projects with limited success. On the other hand, due to the recent completion of the section of Interstate 49 between Texarkana and Shreveport, leaders remain optimistic about eventually receiving the funds.
“I wondered how Louisiana received the federal funds to pay for I-49 from Shreveport to Texarkana, and I found out that they took some really big gambles. Louisiana told the feds that they would use unclaimed money as collateral, and they would put the money into building I-49, and they did,” Texarkana, Arkansas, Mayor Ruth Penney Bell said. “It’s going to take some thinking outside the box [for us to finish the stretch of I-49 from Texarkana to Fort Smith]. Somehow, we are going to have to get our senators and representatives to verbalize [the need for this project].”
One of the largest projects that will begin in 2019 will be a complete $30 million renovation of the terminal at the Texarkana Regional Airport. This renovation will allow passengers to board passenger planes using a skybridge, and officials hope that the new terminal will create more new flights straight out of Texarkana.
“The new terminal will not only have cosmetic improvements, but we also hope to increase ridership because many people will not fly into or out of Texarkana,” said Lisa Thompson, Public Information Officer for Texarkana, Texas. “Many people go to Dallas so they can get something to eat before, they have great insurance and good parking, but improving some of those things here will help get us more flights out of Texarkana. There are also functionality benefits such as we will soon have a jet bridge rather than having to climb the metal stairs to get into the plane.”
The relationship between both sides of State Line strengthened after the City of Texarkana, Texas, offered to pay the $300,000 needed for a federal study to be done over the new airport terminal this past year.
“In order to get the [federal funds] for our new airport terminal, a study had to be made. It had to be done, and it was going to cost $300,000,” Bell said. “As mayor, I knew the Arkansas side did not have the funds to pay for it, so I talked to the Texas side. They said that they would pay for it, and they did, and now we are getting a very nice new terminal.”
Since the federal government turned over lands formerly owned by the Red River Army Depot, the real estate west of Texarkana has been acquired and rebranded under the TexAmericas Center in 2010. Over time, the center will be turned into a large-scale industrial complex that is poised to be one of the largest in the Americas due to Texarkana’s location, making the region a strategic distribution center.
“That land next to Red River was privatized by the U.S. Army to use for a business park. TexAmericas Center is a state agency set up to market, develop and promote that property. In years to come when that mission is fulfilled, that agency will go out of existence, but for now, they are in the stages of getting up and going,” Bruggeman said. “They have had some success in utilizing existing structures as well as new structures being built on the footprint. There is also a railroad spur as well as close access to Interstate 30, so things are in place and ready for future economic development.”
The latest development at the TexAmericas Center is that a water pipeline will be built beginning in 2019 from Wright Patman Lake south of Texarkana to the center to provide water to future businesses at the center.
“We are going to have a new intake facility at Lake Wright Patman shortly, and we will run a big water line six miles from the lake to the TexAmericas Center,” Barry said. “I hope by 2020 or 2021 that we have the water line completed.”
Although TexAmericas Center and the Texarkana region has a lot of potential, that potential is untapped. The region has struggled to compete to attract new businesses due to various reasons such as a ‘brain drain’ of college graduates.
“I’m not sure a talented college graduate is going to move back and start their business here in Texarkana when they can’t hire the people they need to do their work,” Thompson said. “We have a good quality of life, good schools and a nice downtown, but it really comes down to people [wanting] to know that they can make money, provide for their family and have a secure way of life. If the workforce is not there and we are not investing in our communities the way we should be, then we know it is hard to attract these businesses or even college graduates to come back and start here.”
REDI’s ultimate goal is to provide reasons for young college graduates to want to return to their hometown including employment, quality of life and other factors.
“I want [young college graduates that leave Texarkana for college] with the talent that they have to say that they want to live in Texarkana. It seems like everybody’s in Dallas and that is because of all the opportunities that are there. We have to bring those opportunities here,” Barry said. “I don’t want Texarkana to grow into a small Dallas, but I do want to see Texarkana grow at a good, decent 5 or 6 percent [annual] rate and grow jobs.”
City officials have turned to the local workforce to fulfill job vacancies and debated on whether the workforce needs to be trained before jobs are available, or to heavily advocate to a business to locate in Texarkana so that jobs will be available and the local colleges can adjust their curriculum and programs to accommodate the needs of those jobs. However, officials do agree that once ‘the horse or the cart comes, the other will inevitably follow and create a rebounding effect.
“If we can get businesses interested to come here and invest their money, we will supply them with a workforce,” Bell said. “We are just waiting on the breakthrough— the one company with a bunch of jobs that will take the gamble to move to Texarkana and start the ping-pong effect.”
REDI is confident that local colleges can grow to accommodate the needs of local employers and vice versa due to past examples of close relationships between corporations and postsecondary educational institutions.
“The University of Texas at Dallas [exists] because of the foresight of the people who [managed] Texas Instruments. When Texas Instruments was started, they knew they had to have a skill level of education coming up for students to know in order to become employees,” Barry said. “We can do the same thing. There is no doubt that Texarkana has the ability and the institutions to [teach] the skill levels that we need.”
The city also acknowledged that tax incentives play a role but certain circumstances make giving these incentives to companies in Bowie County either difficult or impossible.
“In Texas, major distribution centers can get an exemption from property taxes called the Freeport Exemption. It is not offered in Bowie County but it can be passed on different levels such as school districts or within the city limits. Last year, some $30 billion worth of goods and services fell under the exemption, so it frightens people. It’s complex so no one wants to tackle it,” Sparks said. “It would look like [an entity] was taking away tax dollars from Texarkana College or TISD, [and that is frowned upon]. Maybe we can try it if we get the right project, but [otherwise] it will hamper us in obtaining major distribution projects.”
Cities and states have learned from Amazon’s pursuit of a second headquarters that businesses are primarily looking for an educated workforce and a location that provides them with the infrastructure they need to distribute their products.
“The first thing that was listed as being significant in bringing Amazon to [New York City and Northern Virginia] was education and the quality of education,” REDI secretary Dr. Emily Cutrer said. “I think education is something that really does help our community [grow], and it helps our students get jobs.”
Since the city’s economic development team is restricted to only funding specific projects, coordination with REDI helps get around this restriction since REDI does not use taxpayer money and can fund much more general initiatives.
“The city cannot fund REDI unless there is a purpose or a specific project. There is a very strict law in Texas that deals with the gifting of public funds. Plus, the city council has specific guidelines for spending money on economic development,” Sparks said. “If REDI brought a specific project, we could fund that. But for REDI, since they use private donations rather than taxpayer dollars and it is a nonprofit, it is able to do much more.”
REDI’s first agenda item is to hire an economic director to assist in making decisions that will impact the region.
“[We are] trying to hire the best economic developer we can possibly hire. We have already interviewed [several candidates],” Barry said. “We’re trying to find somebody that wants to be the best salesman [REDI] can possibly bring into Texarkana and this area.”
REDI, city officials and the Chamber of Commerce have all concluded that the specific location of a business moving to the Texarkana region does not matter citing that any jobs created in the region will end up benefiting Texarkana.
“[REDI and the city are] not biased toward Arkansas or Texas,” Barry said. “If we can put a 300-person business in Garden City, Arkansas, or New Boston, Texas, we would jump up and down to do it.”
Little was accomplished when the Texas and Arkansas sides of Texarkana fought over where a business should locate. However, the expression of support from Hutchinson and Abbott along with historic cooperation between both sides of state line in recent years has allowed the region to adopt a ‘regional mindset’ when dealing with business attraction.
“We have to operate as a region because a rising tide floats all boats. Cities [in the region] need to have the willingness to change a law or a zoning ordinance because thinking regionally is a mindset change,” REDI president Sonja Yates Hubbard said. “We need to be ready to jump on something because like Amazon’s second headquarters, some of these things happen very quickly.”
REDI admits that organizing an event that brought both Governors Hutchinson and Abbott together was a marvelous feat.
“It took a lot of effort to get both of the governors here at the same time. There are a lot of us in [REDI] that have a lot of political pool and we have the ability to pick up the phone and call people. That is what we are relying on big time,” Barry said. “When Governor Abbott was [in town], he said he wants something to happen here and I think Hutchinson does too big time. We have a lot of connections between certain people and that’s really going to help us when we get moving.”
Both sides have also made great strides in revitalizing downtown by transforming it into a residential area through various renovations. The mayors believe that once residences are filled, businesses will follow.
“I’m happy [for the Arkansas side and downtown] to be a bedroom community because eventually, stores will follow,” Bell said. “Dry cleaners and stores that have what people need will follow I’m hoping that those types of things will be our salvation [on the Arkansas side].”
Although some Texarkana residents have turned their backs to revitalizing downtown, city officials say that downtown is the heart and life of a city.
“I’m a strong proponent of downtown, and there are people who gave up on downtown five, 10, or even 15 years ago. But I’m an optimistic person,” Bruggeman said. “We’ve done some good things, and there’s a lot more work that still needs to be done [such as the Hotel Grim renovation], but I appreciate those who are willing to take the interest in purchasing a building downtown to renovate it.”
The downtown philosophy is consistent with the importance of maintaining an appealing aesthetic of the city in order to make a good first impression to visitors and possible new or relocating businesses.
“Appearance [of a city] is very important since it is a first impression. It is important that the overhead tower type lighting on the interstate is kept in good condition because [darkness] may suggest that a certain area is depressed economically,” Bruggeman said. “We built the ‘Welcome to Texarkana’ sign out to the west, and there is one to the east on the Arkansas side as well. For some people, these things don’t matter to them, but for others, it is what they remember and it enhances their experience.”
Officials recognize that even though Texarkana may give a solid attempt, businesses may choose another city above Texarkana due to the steep competition to recruit new or relocating businesses.
“There are always other cities that are trying to get the same projects as we are. When we are looking at a certain project, we think about what our competition looks like because it may not always be Tyler, or it may not always even be in Texas,” Sparks said. “We pull as much information as we can, and that can be used to help new businesses looking to start here.”
REDI is convinced that the Texarkana region is poised for growth and that all the pieces are in place to begin growth and to make Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas into an economic development success story.
“I’m not saying we are going to be successful. It is possible we may be a failure. I don’t think it is probable, or I wouldn’t be sitting here. But we are going to make every effort, the seven of us, to start and develop growth,” Barry said. “We do not have any selfish interest whatsoever. We are doing this because we love Texarkana, and we want something [amazing] to happen.”
Photo by Alyssa Higgins
Brain drain, lack of soft skills hinders job growth
Texas Governor Greg Abbott touts that the State of Texas has the 10th largest economy in the world due to having unparalleled job creation and strong growth of metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-San Antonio and the Houston area. Even smaller cities such as New Braunfels, Bryan-College Station and Tyler have grown significantly in recent years.
Northeast Texas, however, does not seem to share the same success that Frisco has, which is currently the fastest growing city in the U.S. This is due to a lack of workers with training or postsecondary education as well as a lack of jobs or incentives for college graduates to return or remain in Texarkana.
“I’m not sure a talented college graduate is going to move back and start their business here in Texarkana when they can’t hire the people they need to do their work,” said Lisa Thompson, Public Information Officer for Texarkana, Texas. “We have a good quality of life, good schools and a nice downtown, but it really comes down to people [wanting] to know that they can make money, provide for their family and have a secure way of life. If the workforce is not there and we are not investing in our communities the way we should be, then we know it is hard to attract these businesses or even college graduates to come back and start here.”
This “brain drain” phenomenon has prevented Texarkana from attracting college graduates or retaining those who were raised in the city. However, Texarkana’s local colleges remain dedicated to training workers for careers available in the local region as the number of graduates that become employed in Texarkana increase.
“We are beginning to see engineering graduates from [Texas A&M—Texarkana] who are getting jobs locally, and that is really a positive,” said Jerry Sparks, Economic Developer for Texarkana, Texas. “For years, our locally-trained nurses have been able to get local employment, but now we are seeing a step with some of those trained professionals who are getting local jobs. That helps all the way around because those people are less likely to move [since] they started their lives in this area.”
Despite their best efforts and good intentions, Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas trail the rest of Texas and Arkansas in the percentage of the population with a higher education credential. This lack of college graduates and those with graduate degrees will continue to hinder the economy of the Texarkana region as the number of jobs requiring higher education increase.
“We trail the rest of the nation [in the percentage of the population that have higher education credentials]. That’s bad in a lot of ways,” former Texarkana College President James Henry Russell said. “It doesn’t mean that our people are bad, in fact, they’ll outwork [others] and learn. However, it’s really important that we do a better job working with our high school students, and let them see a path to a certificate or degree that’s going to lead to a better paying job. Not only will it help that student and help their family, but it will also help the region get new businesses to come and existing businesses to expand.”
This lack of workers with higher education combined with the brain drain of the few college graduates has been what some claim to be the main reasons why growth in the region has been slow or stagnant.
“When companies are looking for a place to locate, a lot of times they don’t come and look in person. They look on the Internet and at data and demographics, and what they’re seeing is that we don’t have a very highly-skilled workforce in [the region],” Russell said. “I think [this is] one of the reasons we haven’t seen a lot of growth in the Texarkana area and we’ve been really flat for the past decade or two.”
To counteract this, Texarkana College is participating in a statewide initiative called “60 x 30 Texas” whose goal is to increase the percentage of Texans ages 25-34 with a higher education credential to 60 percent by the year 2030.
“That’s not just a made up number. The studies are showing that for the type of jobs we want in Texas by the year 2030, 60 percent of those jobs are going to require some type of college training. Aligning to that, we’re looking at the jobs of the future, and we’re trying to create our academic and workforce paths to meet that,” Russell said. “[The state and educators do not want] you [to] get a degree that’s wasted or you can’t find a job. One thing we want to do here is if we train you on something, we really want you to stay in this area, and we would like for you to be able to find a job here.”
Yet, as technology develops, some jobs will become obsolete while others will be created that society has no knowledge of today. Finding the balance between training for a career available now or possibly available in the future has proven yet another challenge to properly training the local workforce.
“When you ask the question whether you would like to have a workforce prepared for the future or for today, most people will say the future. [Most people] would say the future, but we have the jobs today, so it is always a balance,” Sparks said. “As we grow as a community, we have to be able to be flexible enough to understand the sophistication of maintaining certain jobs that will always be needed, but we will also need the [careers of the future].”
Texas A&M—Texarkana’s certificate programs have been specifically created to grant the workforce the training they need for certain jobs in the area. Meetings with local CEOs about the educational needs of the workforce have allowed local colleges to take direct action from this advice.
“We have our Division of Continuing Education and Community Development. Instead of coming to college for a degree, you can come back to the university and take some short courses leading to certifications that help you in your job. That’s really important for the development of Texarkana and the economy because it means we can provide continuing and specialized education that people already in the workforce need,” TAMU-T President Dr. Emily Cutrer said. “We all learn something in college, and when we get out, you use it for awhile but then things change, so you need to have that continuing education to keep you up to date and on top of your field.”
However, some city officials claim that obtaining the training is not as difficult as ensuring that the workforce has basic “soft skills” that employers desire employees to have.
“We can teach someone to weld or build, but [employers] need people who can show up on time, have proper grooming and can understand the structures of that organization,” Thompson said. “Manufacturers are telling the community colleges that [they] need to help with soft skills preparation.”
Many educational leaders also affirm that soft skills are to blame for the termination of workers and are taking steps to build soft skills in their students.
“The number one reason why employees are terminated in our area is not due to lack of skill, [but rather] it is related to a soft skill issue [such as] passing a drug test, showing up on time, dressing appropriately, and [others],” Russell said. “We are developing an internal motto at TC: ‘Let us fire an employee before you have to.’ We require our students to clock in, dress appropriately, and we are adding a voluntary drug testing program where a student will test at the start of the semester, randomly during, and at the end. This record will show the future employer that, for the past year, they showed up on time, dressed appropriately, and are drug-free. If they can do that for us, chances are they will [work] for the employer as well [as achieve mastery] of the skill program they are in.”
The opening of the Betty and Buddy Ledwell Workforce Training Center at Texarkana College shows a growing effort by local colleges, city governments and REDI to provide training and soft skills to the workforce.
“This new facility will allow us to not only expand the number of students we can train in high need areas for our community, but it also allows us more space to bring in the latest and greatest equipment that industry wants our students to know how to use,” Russell said. “This facility has room and the design to allow for 21st century teaching in a clean and safe environment.”
Local officials, however, emphasize the lack of programs that assist high schoolers to transition to college and generate thoughts about an eventual career.
“[Educational institutions] have to move from college age down, and even down from high school so that we can [connect students to careers] sooner and retain [students],” Sparks said. “Students [are exposed] to [municipal careers], but they don’t see manufacturing, and they only see a little bit of law and finance and other careers.”
Local businesses have also noticed a lack of experience, work ethic and soft skills in those graduating from college. Texarkana has programs to train these individuals, but not enough people know about these opportunities. Most corporations look for motivation and experience when hiring their employees.
“I’m responsible for hiring young engineers,” said Genie Clem, Human Resource Generalist at Graphic Packaging. “We’re looking for those students who have had previous internships or at least two years of engineering classes. On the production side, we do like our employees to have several years of any production experience and to have a good job history. Soft skills in the workforce in something the workforce is currently missing.
Texarkana College believes that its Dual Credit program at local high schools is one of many necessary programs to bridge this gap as the college hopes that more students will participate.
“I am hoping that we have more students graduate from high school with at least 30 hours of Dual Credit from Texarkana College. Right now we’re doing a pretty good job of that with our middle class and up students, but [they] are probably going to college anyway. I really want to push that deeper, and make sure that any student that has the academic or workforce ability by their junior year of high school [to take] a few hours,” Russell said. “If a student will graduate from high school with just six hours of college credit, the chances of them going to college and being successful dramatically goes up. If we can get more students in high school [to take college hours] while in high school, it’s not near as scary.”
Local colleges, school districts and employers are working on ways to coordinate among themselves to create internships programs and increase “experiential learning” as internship programs are gaining popularity nationwide.
“We think internships are really important for our students [since] it gives you a chance to see if you really like the kind of job your thinking about going into, and it also gives you an opportunity work with a prospective employer. You both get to try each other out. I hear from people in the community all the time that they really like having our students as interns,” Cutrer said. “One of the things we expect to see for every student before they graduate is that they have had at least one course that really emphasizes experiential learning [in some way].”
Not only are there educational challenges to going to college, but family and financial issues also plague students graduating high school as the pressure gives the students little time, resources or incentive to pursue a higher education credential.
“I think a lot of high school students would be surprised how many of their fellow students are already having to take care of younger brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents or they’re very close to being on their own,” Russell said. “A lot of them are worried about food everyday. You’d even be surprised how many Texas High students are worried about where they sleep some nights.”
Russell emphasizes that the atmosphere of Texarkana College is welcoming, willing and able to assist these students as they balance these issues with pursuing a postsecondary education that will improve their lives.
“We’ve got caring people in enrollment services and our faculty understands who our students are. More importantly, we like who our students are. I say a lot of times our students wear uniforms to school: they wear Burger King uniforms, they wear McDonald’s uniforms, they wear UPS uniforms,” Russell said. “Our students work. ”
Despite these various obstacles, local officials, REDI and local colleges are optimistic that improved education will lead to more jobs and businesses moving to the Texarkana area.
“In all of the efforts we are doing, I want [young people] to want to live in Texarkana after they graduate college,” REDI board member Dean Barry said. “I’m tired of seeing my grandkids and everybody else move to Dallas. We need them here. We need that [cooperation] to make this work as far as what we are doing, and I think we can make it work.”
Talk of the town
Our past dictates our future
Charming thrift shops backended by rundown alleys. Historic storefronts coated with peeling paint. Colorful artwork colliding with graffiti. Downtown Texarkana is a hotbed of contradictions and community perceptions of the historic area vary widely. Many observe downtown as an area beyond repair while others see a beautiful and historic city center rife with potential.
Despite the mix of viewpoints concerning downtown, organizations such Main Street Texarkana are working with the city government to revitalize downtown Texarkana’s culture and economy.
“Main Street Texarkana’s goal is to promote economic development through historic preservation [in downtown],” said Ina McDowell, executive director of Main Street Texarkana. “We provide loans, grants and design renderings for buildings, businesses and events.”
The effort to preserve the history of Texarkana is pursued by philanthropists who desire to revitalize the area and history buffs like Dr. Beverly Rowe. Rowe has been a professor at Texarkana College for 25 years, is president of the Texarkana Downtown Neighborhood Association and has written and published eight books about Texarkana’s history.
“Value the heritage with which you have been gifted,” Rowe said. “When I travel to speak in other cities or to present programs all over the United States, I always tour their historic districts and talk with downtown revitalization organizations to find what has worked and what has failed. What I have learned is that Texarkana has good bones and we need to learn how to market our heritage and culture to tourists throughout the United States and the world.”
The charm of a town may be subjective, but there is no doubt that downtown Texarkana has a lot of it. With more than 100 businesses, seven museums, restaurants and historic homes, downtown provides a contrast to the modern monotony of the region.
“Local flair is what makes downtown so special,” said Phyllis Deese, Texarkana College Vice President of Administrative Services. “There are no ‘chain’ stores or restaurants. Downtown shows our local flair and culture, and that is what makes this area unique compared to other parts of town.”
Middle-aged generations are increasingly respectful and appreciative of this local culture as they search for uniqueness in the products and services they purchase.
“Society’s model is changing as people want to come back downtown,” said Lisa Thompson, Public Information Officer for Texarkana, Texas. “They want to live here and they want to walk to their work and where they shop because they want more of the local flavor than what a big box retailer can offer.”
However, this charm is not shared by many as the historical significance of downtown is often overlooked. Many newcomers with fresh perspectives seem to have a greater appreciation for downtown than locals.
“When we arrived in 1977 from Shreveport, I couldn’t understand why the citizens of Texarkana didn’t value their downtown more than they did,” Rowe said. “Most had written off the downtown area and felt that it needed a bulldozer. Most didn’t even know the history of this amazing twin city.”
The growth of Texarkana is obvious although it is centralized around chain stores along I-30. Because of this chain growth, some Texarkana residents claim that overlooking our downtown is no longer an option lest we be robbed of what defines Texarkana from the hundreds of similar Texan towns. Additionally, some city officials assert a popular municipal planning theory that the life of a community rests in the hands of the life of that community’s downtown.
“We must always invest in our cities culture. It requires constant attention and maintenance. [New chain stores don’t threaten the city’s identity] as long as we continue to develop, support and strengthen our original city,” McDowell said. “[The growth of Texarkana has a] positive impact. Everyone brings a unique asset to the community— just as downtown is unique with many assets.”
The vision for what “revitalization” truly means differs greatly from hopes of economic gain to social hotspots. The realism of these events may be overshadowed by vain hopes as expectations for what downtown should be clash with reality.
“Some people want to return downtown Texarkana to the 1940s when it was at its peak of activity. That will never happen. Our commercial district has moved out to the I-30 corridor and it won’t come back downtown in the near future,” Rowe said. “Some people want downtown to be a complete bar scene. That won’t happen either. Alcohol, drinking and the bar scene won’t sustain future growth. Some people want downtown to be gentrified — a place for the up and coming wealthy. That, also, won’t happen.”
A focus on past times could hinder the movement, but some believe there is a clear and possible path to revitalization, based on unification and past success.
“What will work is a combination of these things, along with a super strong arts and entertainment component,” Rowe said. “This formula is what has worked for other cities with similar histories to that of Texarkana. This formula is also long-lived and sustainable — that is the key to true success in downtown revitalization.”
The effect of revitalization is not merely subjective. Tangible economic results are visible, and Rowe urges citizens to jump on the bandwagon while they can.
“Within the next three years [to 2022], tremendous change will become visible in downtown Texarkana. However, if you wait until this change is evident, you have missed the boat. There won’t be any more properties to claim as your own, and the price of renting, leasing or even ownership will have skyrocketed,” Rowe said. “Already, the price of a two-story downtown building of about 7,000 square feet has climbed from $45,000 [in 2005] to $210,000 in 2018. That’s a huge return on investment dollars that has already happened. Imagine what the story will be in three years, when the change becomes visible.”
Investing time downtown can be as effective as investing money. Volunteering in any of downtown’s seven museums is a way for any individual to join the revitalizing effort, which has garnered community and monetary support.
“By volunteering, you will learn of ongoing revitalization projects and new ones, as they start,” Rowe said. “Right now, there are more than 20 revitalization projects in the works with a total budget of more than 50 million dollars soon to be pumped into downtown Texarkana.”
One of the projects currently in the works is the renovation of the Grimm Hotel which is regarded to be a major landmark of downtown.
“We are continuing work on the Grimm Hotel which has been in the works now for about  years. There has been a lot of ups and downs since 2009 but everything is on track during this time. Construction will probably begin sometime during the first quarter of [this year],” Texarkana, Texas, Mayor Bob Bruggeman said. “I think that once this project is complete, it will serve as an anchor for other economic activity.”
However, officials assert that tax dollars alone will not revitalize downtown.
“We have several ongoing projects, but the revitalization of downtown has to be some type of public-private partnership,” said Jerry Sparks, Economic Developer of Texarkana, Texas. “You can’t just pour public money into [downtown] and think it’s going to work. If you can’t open a business that’s profitable downtown, [it won’t happen].”
The future rests in the hands of, not only those well-established in Texarkana, but in the youth. There are many ways students and young adults can become involved and help further downtown.
“In order for downtown Texarkana to thrive, our young people need to start getting involved,” Phyllis Deese said. “No matter your interest, there are ways that all citizens can become a part of the revitalization efforts. This can include volunteering, shopping, dining downtown, visiting the museums, art galleries and joining organizations.”