Civic center exemplifies community cooperation

By Roy J. Eaton | Published Wednesday, June 29, 2016

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The Decatur Civic Center celebrated its 15th anniversary last week, and it was a great occasion.

The beautiful building is a perfect example of what can happen when a community has a single goal and everybody works hand-in-hand to reach that goal. It was the leadership efforts of the city council, city staff, chamber of commerce, the business community and lots of others who had a big dream that Decatur could have something special.

Roy J. Eaton

Roy J. Eaton

The first person that I remember mentioning a civic center was the late County Judge Charles R. Wilhite, who ironically, way back in the ’60s, was instrumental in building the Women’s Building on the Wise County Fairgrounds.

It was Don Robinson, then president of the First National Bank of Decatur who brought the idea to the chamber of commerce to have an annual banquet and auction to raise funds for the civic center. Don had come to Decatur from Terrell where a similar auction was successful.

The first auction was at the National Guard Armory – in the pouring rain – but it was a big success and the money raised from the auction was used to fund a feasibility study for a civic center from the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research.

That study began in 1995 and was presented to the city council in June of that year. Mayor Bobby Wilson and the council took the study and ran with it.

When the council gave its approval to go forward, a group of citizens began visiting civic and conference centers around Texas to get an idea of what was wanted. They visited Gainesville, Plano, Mineola, Tyler, Athens, Grapevine and Waxahachie to get the “best ideas” on what would work for Decatur.

I can’t say enough about the cooperation of the city council and the city staff headed then, as now, by City Manager Brett Shannon. Council members were Charles Burton, John Coker, Eddie Sampler, Jeff Bakker, Joe Lambert and Richard Garrison.

But make no mistake, the civic center would not have been possible without the half-cent Economic Development sales tax approved by voters in 1993.

The Economic Development Corp. board, headed by Burton stepped up and agreed to finance the $4.1 million building out of sales tax revenue. Other EDC board members at the time included Coker, Wilson, Burton, Tim Rieger and me.

To this day the EDC makes the debt payments on the building and the city operates the center. Four years from now, another big party is planned to celebrate the burning of the mortgage on the building.

In addition to EDC funding, individuals and business firms stepped up with sizeable donations of money, paintings, pianos and other equipment to help with the construction and operation of the center.

The city hired the architectural firm of Phelps and Wood of Frisco, and they began design activities in 1998. Construction started about a year later, and there was a formal ribbon cutting on June 24, 2001.

Since that time, the civic center has become a magnet of activity not only for Decatur, but for all of Wise County and many surrounding counties as well. Despite the downturn in oil and gas activity, the center served 29,270 people last year, and center manager Lori Sherwood said it was on track to serve more than 30,000 this year.

With more than $600,000 in sales last year, the center covered an amazing 70 percent of its operating costs, with the remainder being made up from hotel/motel tax revenues so there is no direct cost to Decatur taxpayers. Sherwood has a goal to reach $1 million in annual sales.

Most civic centers do well to cover half their operating costs, so Sherwood and her staff do a magnificent job, backed by a talented city staff with special credit to the city public works and parks department who keep the place beautiful inside and out.

Members of the Civic Center Advisory Board headed by former Councilman Jay Davidson and including Loraine Burton, Joe Lambert, Jeannine Eaton and me hosted the birthday celebration.

Could something like this happen in Decatur in today’s environment? Of course it could. It happened in the first place because everybody – the city council, the city staff, the chamber of commerce, the Economic Development Corp., the business community and volunteers – got together with a single goal, to build a civic center.

Right now there are plans for a new Marriott hotel to be built next door to allow the civic center to host multiple-day events. It’s been a long and complicated process, but there are hopes for a groundbreaking in September. To handle the increased business, there are plans to remodel and enlarge the Great Hall and the kitchen, as well as parking.

What is the next “big idea” for Decatur? I visited with former Mayor Joe Lambert, and he has some suggestions and so does former Mayor Bobby Wilson. James Wood and I would dream about a joint city-county effort to build an indoor all-weather arena at the fairgrounds. Others might like to begin implementing the park and recreation master plan. Former Councilman Jay Davidson says we need to get to work on annexation before we’re “swallowed up” by a more aggressive city.

We need look no further than the dynamic vision of Wise Health System to realize what can be done with proper planning for the future.

But nothing is going to happen until today’s young civic and business leadership – not Joe or Bobby or James or me – begins brainstorming like we did 20 years ago to consider the next “big project” for Decatur. And when that dream is finalized, get to work and make it happen.

We did it 20 years ago, and we can do it again.

Roy Eaton is publisher of the Messenger.

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