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By listening -- and then acting -- the City of Fort Worth and partner agencies are transforming a neighborhood that had been in decline for decades
Younger readers likely don’t know the acronym BRAC. But if you were alive and kicking in local government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the last thing you wanted to hear was that BRAC was coming to your town.
Base Realignment and Closure was the federal government program to reduce the number of U.S. military bases in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The reduced threat of nuclear annihilation was a wonderful, even glorious, thing. It also meant we didn’t need all those Air Force bases with all those bombers ready to strike at a moment’s notice. More than 350 installations were closed in five BRAC rounds from 1988 through 2005. The closures constitute a combined savings of $12 billion annually. Again, that’s a good thing.
What was not wonderful, certainly not glorious, nor a good thing is what happened in those 350 communities where those bases were located. A huge source of jobs, both direct and indirect, evaporated practically overnight. In Fort Worth, the recommended closure of Carswell AFB was announced in 1991. The base closed in September 1993. Major employers serving the base quickly followed suit.
Thus began the slow decline of the Las Vegas Trail (LVT) neighborhood, where a lot folks connected to nearby Carswell lived. When the base closed, many of them moved on. What was left behind was an area ill-suited to meet the needs of a changing, diversifying population. Because Carswell provided so many on-base services to its employees, LVT had little to none of the commercial businesses and services typical in other neighborhoods. The LVT area is home to about 14,000 residents in a 1.7-square-mile area. There is a 33 percent poverty rate and estimated 10 percent unemployment rate. It makes up about 1 percent of Fort Worth’s population and 4 percent of its crime.
In 2017, the Fort Worth Star Telegram reported on the results that decades of neglect had wrought on LVT. It was not a flattering look for the City. Instead of pointing fingers of blame, City leaders stood up and said, we’re going to deal with this. And, I hasten to add, it wasn’t just city leaders. Social service providers helping the good people of LVT began coordinating their efforts in partnership with the City to better serve the community.
But before they acted, they listened. And then took action. And then listened some more. And more action followed. And more is coming. It’s a beautiful cycle.
The story of the ongoing transformation of LVT is a fantastic example what can happen when government listens. If you want a short version of the LVT story, here’s a video put together by Scott Daniels, Communications Specialist for the City of Fort Worth’s kick-ass Neighborhood Services Department.
But let’s face it. You’re reading GGF because you want the details. You need the details. You’re a local government professional eager to make the world a better place, and you need more depth than a 1 minute, 49 second video — even a well-produced one! — can provide.
(OK. You’re not all local gov types. My Aunt Gay and Aunt Sandra are readers. Hi, ladies! Hope you’re well. I know you’re also gonna love learning more about how meaningful citizen engagement translates into real quality of life improvements in distressed neighborhoods.)
So like I said, the first thing the City did was listen. To me, though, it’s how they listened and who they got to do some listening for them that sets the project apart.
"We go out to these neighborhoods, and we go door to door to get their input,” Daniels said. “We go to churches, we go to Boys and Girls Clubs and other community gathering places, and our message is basically, help us help you. We have $3.5 million we can put toward your neighborhood. Tell us what you need, and we'll work to make it happen."
That $3.5 million number is significant. In Fort Worth, neighborhood plans are put together with the knowledge that there will be resources allocated to implement the plan’s priorities — which are identified by the residents. What’s really cool, Daniels told me, is the City can identify the communities where it can get the biggest bang for its planning and improvement buck thanks to an analysis of Census tracts by Interface Studio.
“But data can only take you so far,” Daniels said. “You've got to go talk to the people in the neighborhood. What do they need, and how can we help?”
The City and partner agencies hold events where residents fill out questionnaires and use other engagement tools to identify the programs that folks who live there feel will make the biggest difference. Notably, neighborhood residents are brought on board to assist. It can be helpful at times when it’s a neighbor talking to a neighbor instead of a resident talking to a bureaucrat (even a polite, well-intentioned one). In my experience, a comfort level exists in the former that allows for a more meaningful, more candid conversation to place. Not that I haven’t had meaningful, candid conversations in public meetings. There have been plenty, believe me. But for folks who are quiet, maybe a little introverted, they’d rather talk to someone they know. And their input is just as important as that of their more outgoing neighbors.
Back to the LVT story. A little more historical context is helpful. Here’s an excerpt from the 2022 LVT Neighborhood Plan that relates what happened after the Star Telegram series put a harsh spotlight on the area’s decline.
Then District 3 Councilman Brian Byrd and then-Mayor Betsy Price, community leaders and non-profit leaders set in motion a coordinated effort to revitalize Las Vegas Trail and initiated a task force that included residents, nonprofits, government agencies, churches and local business owners.
In 2018, a mobile community center in the form of a 45-foot RV, was dispatched throughout the community offering social services while a plan was developed for a permanent solution. The former Westside YMCA was purchased by the City of Fort Worth, renovated and re-opened in early 2020 as the Rise Community Center. Today, the Rise Community Center offers community-facing services and programming operated by LVTRise, a local non- profit. Making further progress toward community priorities identified by the 2017 task force, IDEA Public Schools opened a new charter school facility on Cherry Lane in 2019.
Astute readers will recognize that a LOT of progress was made in LVT in the period after the Star Telegram series and before the current process that resulted in the 2022 neighborhood plan. A big reason for the continued focus on improving LVT is that Councilmember Byrd’s successor, Michael Crain, knew more work needed to be done. As Crain put it in an interview with GGF, “It took 30 years for the area to fall into disrepair.”
“You’ve got to play the long game. You just can’t make significant changes overnight,” Crain said. “I’ve been saying that the Las Vegas Trail community should not be a place where people end up, but a place where people want to live.”
The transformation of the YMCA into the Rise Community Center is one reason why folks would want to live in LVT. Here’s more from the neighborhood plan:
Coinciding with the development of this plan, Rise Community Center campus expanded to include a new Boys and Girls Club facility on-site. The Boys and Girls Club began operating out of the newly built facility on June 13, 2022. In addition, Child Care Associates is finalizing plans to build and operate the new Head Start facility adjacent to the existing Rise Community Center. Early Head Start serves pregnant women and families with children under age 3. Head Start programs serve children between 3 and 5 years old. These programs are free and designed to promote school readiness for children from low-income families.
Crain noted the public library also has a “branch” in the community center, and pound for pound it’s the most utilized space in the system. Those kinds of partnerships are integral to LTV’s reformation. The City can't do it all. Nor should it have to, said Crain.
"Others will come together to help you realize the vision," he said.
Crain, a self-described fiscal conservative, sees the investment in LVT as more of a hand up than a handout.
“We have to create opportunities,” Crain said. “There's a great community there that a lot of people call home. We're trying make basic improvements to quality of life for those residents.”
Back to the listening
Community engagement is a foundation of the latest planning effort, and the City and LTVRise hosted a block party and a summer kickoff event, as well as conducted a survey that was completed by 615 residents (49 in Spanish). But there was more outreach. Again, from the Plan:
Interviews, focus groups, and constant contact with an advisory committee of neighborhood leaders, local partners, and LVTRise staff shaped the plan as it evolved month by month.
Throughout the planning process, concerns were expressed about the safety and cleanliness of public spaces and streets in the neighborhood. The desire for more oversight of unresponsive landlords and deteriorated properties also cannot be understated. Last, residents young and old expressed strong desire for improvements to parks and open spaces. Residents of LVT want healthy activities and safe places to enjoy with their loved ones.
I love, love, love the straightforward, non-bureaucratic language in the report (which is why I keep quoting from it.) One of my tenets when I was running a local gov comms shop was that just because the content is coming from the government doesn’t mean it has to sound like it’s coming from the government. Keep it conversational. Meet people where they are, just like the City and LVTRise did in this entire process.
Here’s Exhibit A:
Your words need to be matched by your deeds. In LVT, increased police patrols and a dedicated code enforcement officer have been critical steps taken by the City, according to Councilmember Crain and other city officials. Crain also noted the problems with absentee landlords, but added, “there are also some good ones.”
“Anytime an apartment complex changes ownership, I contact the new owners and send them a copy of the plan,” he said. “A lot of them are grateful because they're invested in this community, too. They want to see it get better.”
But wait, there’s more
It’s an old adage, but it’s true: success breeds success. In addition to the improvements highlighted in the video, Councilmember Crain said yet another big project benefitting residents is in the works: a healthcare facility.
“It’ll be a game changer for that neighborhood,” Crain said.
The facility is a public-private partnership and will break ground in coming months. Crain said it will provide basic medical services, along with preventive care and mental health services to the community. Currently, he said, too many residents rely on emergency rooms for basic care. For those without a car, getting to the nearest community healthcare center takes well over an hour, as the graphic below shows.
I present Exhibit B:
Nineteen stops in 32 minutes! A game changer, indeed.
Sometimes, it takes a village to raise a village, and Crain was quick to note hard work by many on the City staff, from the City Manager all the way down to the code enforcement officer who everyone in the area knows by name.
I need to give a couple of quick shoutouts before I wrap this up. First, thanks to old friend Reyne Telles, Chief Communications Officer for the City, for hooking me up with Councilmember Crain and Scott Daniels, the department PIO. And thanks, again, to Dr. Ashley English, TCU comms professor, for turning me on to the wonderful LVT story.
“LVT is a great example of making the time, listening well, and then deciding what happens next,” English said. “This is the gold standard for getting it right.”
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