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Kyle, Texas | Economic Development

New city manager wants to transform Kyle into a destination

 Less than a month ago, Scott Sellers resigned his position as city manager of Kilgore, Tex., the home of the world famous high-kicking, white-Stetsoned Kilgore Rangerettes, to become the city manager here in Kyle, the home of the world famous … er, the world famous … Come to think of it, what exactly is Kyle famous for?

And that’s exactly the question Scott Sellers wants to find the answer to.

"I think it will be safe to say the citizens of Kyle don’t want to become just another community," Sellers told me during an interview in his City Hall office earlier this week. "There’s a heritage here, a history. There is a pride for Kyle that should not be diluted.

"We don’t want to be just a bedroom community. We want to be a destination, a leader in Central Texas and in the state.. We want to put together programs, services, and policies that are looked upon as being innovative and forward thinking and set us apart from other communities."

Sellers referred to something he called "The Primary Lure Concept," which, as he describes it, answers the question "What is the primary lure that your community has that no other town, no other city, has within, say, a hundred miles? Why would somebody make the trip to Kyle for something they can’t get in their back yard?

"So as we develop Kyle, we need to have that focus in mind, that singular attraction."

If Sellers has any sort of inkling what that attraction might be, or even what form it might take, he didn’t share that secret with me, except that he liked the idea of a place where people would feel safe "to gather." He did appear, however, to be shying away from staging anything that might remotely be described as "a festival."

"Every city has a festival," he said. "But does anybody know, for example, Kilgore is the home of the Oilman’s Chili Cook-off? It brings over 10,000 oilmen to Kilgore to cook chili for a couple of days." 

But, he emphasized, that’s not what Kilgore is known for. "Even with a festival that large that almost doubles the size of the population, it didn’t put Kilgore on the map, by any means. The Rangerettes did."

Sellers said Kyle could capitalize on its location and its proximity to San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin as well as its geographical, topographical and physical attributes. But, that, too, comes with a caution, he said.

"I noticed driving into town there’s a sign that says ‘Gateway to the Hill Country.’ I don’t want to be the gateway to something else. That means you’re going to drive through here. I want to be the destination, I want Kyle to be the destination. And getting to that point is exciting. It’s fun."

And then he returned to that recurring thought of "a gathering place."

"If you look at the cities that are on the map for a reason, start to think about what they all have in common. San Antonio is known for the River Walk and the Alamo. Maybe Six Flags and the Spurs. I mean what else is San Antonio known for? The Alamo being the historical part of the city, the river walk being the place to gather and hang out. It’s a feature where people feel comfortable. 

"It’s typically congregating areas that attract people to communities. New York is known as the Big Apple but most people, when they think of New York, they think of Times Square or Central Park. So here we have two places that New York is really known for that are gathering places, where people are excited to be and interact. 

"It’s the human side that puts you on the map, You’re talking about the gathering place, the interaction that draws people together. And I don’t know if that’s it for Kyle — if we need to build this huge town square and do something fun in it. I’m not saying that. But there are a lot of commonalities among cities that have done it right. And we’re going to do it right. I just don’t know what that looks like yet."

One of Sellers first priorities, he told me, is to conduct a citizen survey that will, one, help him prepare his first budget for Kyle, but also, hopefully, to collect ideas on the citizens’ dreams of the city’s future.

"Let’s start talking about ‘Who are we. What do we want to be? What’s that unique attraction, that primary lure?’ It’s going to take time. Something like this doesn’t happen overnight. And I think the role of government is to send the ship sailing, if you will. But if it’s not a community-led effort or community-adopted effort, it will die. You sometimes have really good ideas that sail away because they weren’t adopted by the community. You have other ideas that are really great that are killed by the city council.. So I think it needs to be a collective community undertaking."

Sellers comes across, at least to me, as one tenacious individual who is determined to achieve what he sets out to achieve, regardless of the obstacles placed in his path. That wasn’t his intention when he told me the following story, but it illustrates the point.

"When I first started as an intern in Lehi, Utah (March 2005) I was in the Finance Director’s office and my job there was to create a budget document for the city of Lehi. There’s an organization called the GFOA — Government Finance Officers Association — and every year they give awards for budget documents. It’s called the Distinguished Budget Presentation award. The city of Lehi received that award eight or nine years running and they had it down to just a science. Every October they would get a new intern and that intern would sit down and craft out the next year’s budget document and then submit it and get the award.

"As I became familiar with their budget document, I tried to add my own personal touches. I had to go around and meet with all the department heads to talk about updating capital improvement plans, getting strategic plan elements, updating the budget message, etc. It was a really good experience that kind of set the standard for getting my next job when I went to Centralia, Illinois (as assistant city manager in June 2006). I showed them this budget document and they said ‘Great We love this. We don’t have anything like this. Will you build this for us?’ I said ‘Sure. It’s going to take me a little while, but I’m going to build it.’ And, in addition to the (main GFOA) award I learned there were two special recognitions you could get on top of the base award. And actually there was a third — from ICMA (International City/County Management Association) for performance measurements. I said ‘Well, heck, if I’m going to build this from scratch I’m going to get all the awards.’

"The next year I built a document myself from scratch for the city of Centralia. I did the whole thing in Excel (a spreadsheet application by Microsoft). I became very, very, very proficient with Excel. I used to tell people I could make Excel sing and dance. But after submitting that I still didn’t get either special recognition award. So the next year I looked at every budget document I could get my hands on that did receive these special recognition awards — and there really weren’t all that many. Out of over 1,000 cities that submit for the award, less than 10 get the special recognition awards. I wanted both of them. And I tried to incorporate everything I could find and in the next iteration I got both special recognition awards and the ICMA award for performance measures. So I felt I had arrived as a human being in my career."

There are as many approaches to preparing a budget as there are individuals preparing those budgets. One of the most common is cost-based budgeting, in which the budget is designed around projecting how much it will cost to run the city effectively during the next fiscal year. But more and more municipalities are shifting toward a theory known as Budgeting for Outcomes in which the budget is designed to answer the question What is the most efficient way to spend our projected income in a way that will allow us to achieve the goals we have set for our self as a city?. In other words, you budget for results, not costs.

Sellers says he plans on combining a number of different approaches as he prepares Kyle’s FY 2015-16 budget, but he said, his approach might be different than ones taken by his predecessors.

"A good budget process is going to have citizen input, which is why I am going to do the survey," he said. "It’s going to take a holistic look at the community. And it’s not going to hide things. I want to make sure that the city council knows the full picture. You need to have the whole picture that you’re looking at so that you can prioritize. I don’t know if we’ve really done that here in the past."

But, he emphasized he does believe in budgeting for outcomes, a process that basically involves answering these five questions

  • What is the price citizens are willing to pay for their government?
  • What results matter most to citizens?
  • What are the government priorities government will deliver to its citizens?
  • How much should the city spend to achieve each result?
  • How can the city best deliver the results citizens expect?

Sellers told me he hopes his citizen survey as well as priority setting from the City Council will lead to the answers to those five questions.

" I plan on having a retreat with the city council earlier on, in April or May," he said. "But I want to have to have my survey results back from the citizenry having the whole picture as part of that retreat and then ask the council to prioritize for me. The council will take all the information I have given and they will set the priorities for me and then it’s my job to fit the highest priorities into the budget. 

"It’s my job to present the budget that has as many high priority items in it as possible while still maintaining day-to-day operations. When the council can see dynamically that adding this piece of equipment is going to add one penny to the tax rate it changes the way they start marking decisions. So that’s how we’ll do the budget process this year."

Although he hasn’t reached any firm decisions as to the when’s and how’s just yet, Sellers is toying with the idea of having additional council sessions reserved for presentations or briefings, either from staff or such other outside entities as the Pedernales Electric Co-op, which presented a briefing to council late last year. Although such meetings would invite and encourage citizen input, no items would be included on the agenda for these sessions which would require council action.

"I used to have a council meeting every single week," he said. "On the off week it was a briefing session; on the other week it was an agenda meeting. 

"I’m also used to doing what is called a pre-council meeting on a Friday morning before the next Tuesday council meeting. Yes, some sort of pre-meeting can also be used for presentations so we’re not prolonging the actual council meeting until 11 or 12 at night. That will be an idea I will present to the council. 

"I have asked prior councils that question and some say ‘No, we trust you. We run expeditious meetings and don’t feel like we need a separate meeting.’ It is not uncommon, however, to have a meeting that runs very late into the night, and people don’t want to sit there that long. So finding ways to shorten the meetings are appropriate. And this is a good way to do that."

Although the role of city manager seems to fit Sellers perfectly, he is still somewhat unsure of what is expected of him in some areas. For example, exactly what his role will be in economic development.

"But when I learned the city had an Economic Development Department in-house I was very excited," he said. "Economic development is a passion of mine. I say it’s a passion but one thing you’ll learn about me is that every facet of local government is a passion of mine. I just really enjoy building communities. It’s fun."

He said one of the tools he would likely employ in his economic development efforts are the creation of Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, districts, in which the property tax increases that will come about because of that particular development are used to subsidize current improvements.

"I have used TIF districts many times in the past," he said. "What I will say to the citizenry is they do work.

"The neat thing about a TIF is that (in most cases) there is this ‘but for clause’. And I have carried that with me throughout my career. When think of a TIF I always think of the ‘but for clause,’ which is ‘but for the tax increment financing would we have the development that is there?’. And I have seen proven time and time again that devoid of the TIF nothing has happened. But for the TIF there has been major, major development. 

"So I try to look at it with that ‘but for’ in mind. Under that parameter, TIFs are great to incentivize development. They are also used to remediate blight, but we don’t have that in Kyle because we’re so new. But for the TIFs, would we have the same development and I believe the answer is most cases is ‘no’."

Before we ended our session I had to ask the new city manager if he thought Kyle needed to be part of a regional transportation plan.

"That’s a loaded question, an extremely loaded question,’ he said with a smile. "Transit oriented development is a wonderful opportunity for citizens. 

"With our proximity to other job markets where citizens of Kyle do work and considering the current state of I35, I believe additional transportation options are very appropriate to explore. Whether they come in the form of commuter rail vs. ride sharing vs. expansion of the interstate, I don’t know the best answer right now. But connectivity and transit oriented development are very, very important for this area."

My first impressions: Sellers is just the right fit for Kyle. On the other hand, the man could be incisive enough to size me up immediately and give me the answers he figured I wanted to hear. But I don’t think he did that. That assumes a certain degree of deviousness that, in my observation, he doesn't possess.

Of course, time … and whatever our "destination" turns out to be (and I will share some thoughts on that at a date in the not-to-distant future) … will be the best judge of that. Watch this space.



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