Monday, September 05, 2005

Make Beaumont the new New Orleans

Since I'll catch heat for this post, I'll reiterate the obvious: All my blogs are personal opinions and not - in any part - related to my employer, freelance clients or any entities other than myself.

I take full responsibility for the words expressed on this blog. If you have a problem with anything I write on this or my other blogs, take them up with me personally via e-mail. I'll be happy to incorporate helpful ideas.

I'm obviously back in Beaumont. I'm proud of the valiant work the Coast Guard and others have done to rescue some people trapped in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For those who risked everything to save others, I salute you.

Meanwhile, I am disappointed by the inadequate response from the U.S. government and others to assist folks in desperate need. Currently, people continue to die daily for lack of attention. I won't go into detail about the failures I have seen. Instead, let's talk about the future.

Specifically, let's talk about Beaumont and its ability to finally become the city it's capable of becoming. In short, it can become a newer, safer New Orleans. However, its people and government must move beyond a small-town mentality. The city must plan and act like a metropolis to achieve its potential. This will require a master plan, engineering and a commitment of the entire city. Mostly, it requires some folks to step aside and let the city grow and flourish as it should.

Similarities
Beaumont and New Orleans share a similar cultural background. Both are considered Cajun country. Both are ports. Both have about the same weather, topography and wildlife. Both seem to have similar religious backgrounds and cultures. Both have nearby timber, fishing and oil industries. Most importantly for some, both celebrate Mardi Gras. Both are even located on Interstate Highway 10 and major river systems.

Demographic Statistics
Beaumont, Texas
Pop.: 385,090
Median age: 35.6
Male: 49.86%
Female: 50.14%
White: 68.20%
Black: 24.80%
Hispanic: 8.00%
Asian: 2.10%
Native American: 0.40%

New Orleans, La.
Pop.: 1,337,726
Median age: 34.8
Male: 47.84%
Female: 52.16%
White: 57.30%
Black: 37.50%
Hispanic: 4.40%
Asian: 2.10%
Native American: 0.40%

U.S. Department of Labor location quotient calculator
Percentage of Employment calculated from Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages Data
Jefferson County, Texas; Orleans Parish, Louisiana: Industry
0.38% ; 2.21% : Natural Resources and Mining
10.15% ; 3.22% : Construction
14.10% ; 3.95% : Manufacturing
24.30% ; 18.86% : Trade, Transportation, and Utilities
2.49% ; 2.58% : Information
4.49% ; 7.19% : Financial Activities
11.67% ; 17.51% : Professional and Business Services
18.31% ; 18.19% : Education and Health Services
10.53% ; 22.22% : Leisure and Hospitality
3.52% ; 3.87% : Other Services
0.06% ; 0.20% : Unclassified
Percentage of Employment: Ratio of industry employment to base-industry employment times 100.

Important statistics include Beaumont's higher construction and manufacturing capacity ratios as well as higher trade, transportation and utilities ratios. All of these particular fields would be important to a rapidly growing area.

Growth potential
Beaumont already has the natural resources and potential to be a world-class city. Some "leaders" have chosen to consolidate power and restrict growth. I don't know the history behind these decisions, but it's backwards and counterproductive in the wake of the devastation in Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Unlike Houston, Beaumont hasn't overgrown it's capacity. There is plenty of land for growth and agriculture, water for an expanded population and access to the ocean for large-scale import/export business.

Starting points
I'm not a city planner, but I've covered enough master-planned cities to understand their basic function and how the successful ones differentiate from the failures.

Make a master plan
Although a master plan is considered socialism in nearby parts of Texas, they are very successful in North Texas. I think a solid master plan for Beaumont and the Golden Triangle would work fine.

Basically, Beaumont and surrounding cities would need to designate portions of land for specific use. The major sections in a successful master plan include civic, housing (single family and multi-family), retail, commercial, industrial, recreational, entertainment, arts and special international districts. Within each area, adequate police and firefighting resources must be planned.

This consolidates educational and/or religious resources in housing areas without the need to build schools and churches in potentially-dangerous industrial areas. Since these two particular institutions tend to be rally points in times of emergency, it's best to keep them away from industrial plants as is currently the situation in many cities outside Beaumont.

It's fine to grandfather the plan to include current residential property within retail or commercial areas as well as current commercial properties within existing housing areas. However, new construction must fall into designated areas to best utilize the land for a rapidly growing population. The plan must see into the future and expect an exponential growth to accommodate the influx of people and business.

Zoning
The first step in a master-planned community is zoning. Areas must be designated by use. This places the ideal resources where they belong without disturbing other resources. A simple mapping process would handle most of this and could be completed relatively easily (ignoring the inevitable politics).

Along with zoning, short-term tax incentives or abatements might be considered. However, if a business is using the area's natural resources (oil, gas, fish, lumber), these incentives wouldn't be considered because the business can't move these resources to another area. Let them pay proper taxes to use the area's natural resources. They will pay properly.

International tax-free zones make most city governments nervous. These areas allow businesses to operate without heavy tax burdens. Although it seems like a losing proposition, the support businesses are not tax-exempt. These companies pay proper taxes and help support the cities as well as their clients.

Again, the larger the international zone grows, the more support services it will require. It pays for itself in the long run, but it's hard for some to see.

An additional consideration would be to coax companies particularly known for community involvement into this zone. Although they don't pay taxes directly, they may voluntarily support area education, public transportation or other resources of use to the entire region.

Code enforcement
As the zones are established. Code enforcement officials must get to work. From what I've seen, additional resources should probably be designated for this purpose alone. The code enforcement officials must identify properties which do not adhere to standard safety or acceptable appearances and persuade the violators to get into compliance or sell their property to someone who would.

There are many buildings and properties around town which should be leveled or, at the very least, cleaned and maintained.

If code enforcement officials had the authority to issue citations with the potential of city-ordered corrections or eventual seizure, these properties would rapidly comply. The citation gives the offender a reasonable amount of time to comply. If they don't, the city can choose to remedy the problem and bill the company (such as cutting grass and trimming trees) or begin severe fining of the property owner until they comply or sell to someone who will comply.

If a property is abandoned (as many gas stations appear to have been), the property should be designated as such and seized by the city. It could be cleaned by the city and resold according to the new master plan to cover expenses or converted to another city-sanctioned use (such as a fire station or public park).

As a side note, if there was a reclamation incentive program to allow companies to clear land in exchange for whatever they can salvage, I think this process would progress more rapidly.

Secure land
The city must secure as much land as possible and install basic infrastructure for future use. This requires annexation of land and more political problems, but it's for a good cause and would eventually help everyone.

There are large areas along IH-10 to the Southwest and Highways 90 and 105 to the West as well as areas east of Beaumont which could be annexed and incorporated into a larger metropolitan Beaumont area.

These areas need water, sewage, electricity, fire and police infrastructure construction. This construction would employ many people and lay the groundwork for future growth.

Major street construction could be designated to construction companies as a stipulation of zone requests. These should be arranged in logical compass directions with variations within the major grids for home aesthetics and safety (cul de sacs are more safe and secure than grid-based residential streets). Additionally, adequate alleyways must accompany all construction for sanitation and emergency purposes.

Again, codes must be made and strictly enforced.

Education
The truest measure of a city's potential is its educational system. If the educational system is a failure the city will fail along with it. If the educational institution is successful, the city will thrive.

Where there is a well-educated and entrepreneurial workforce, there is business innovation. Where education is stagnant and has failed its students, there is often poverty and criminal behavior. Although this increases the need for police personnel, it's a self-destructive policy.

Therefore, not only the school district, but businesses and individuals must share the burden of education. Businesses must invest in the school district to cultivate educated workers. Individuals, particularly well-educated retirees and business professionals, must be invited to mentor students.

This cooperation places expectations upon the future generation beyond simply passing tests. It instills the future generation with a purpose to their education. They are taught that there is a rainbow after a storm and others expect them to walk down the long road to it's completion.

Students can't give up and drop out if they have strong role models and proper resources. Instead, they learn how to think critically and can expect a reward for their hard work. Students, communities and businesses all benefit from this symbiotic relationship.

Each school should be sponsored by a different business. Investing in educational resources is a tax write-off for the businesses and ensures the future growth for the businesses.

A partnership between the school districts and the chambers of commerce could easily be arranged and would be mutually beneficial. Schools could be paired with industries by size. This would not only advance education but allow some brand loyalty to the businesses.

Likewise, high-quality instructors and administrators should be courted to the area. Top-notch education draws a cohesive population. A failed educational system creates educational flight. Folks will settle in a community for it's fine education even when other resources are scarce. In the Golden Triangle, if education was a priority, it would ensure a solid tax base and guaranty growth.

Furthermore, adult literacy must get more attention. Although most of the adult literacy problems are not actually the fault of Texas educators, it's still a problem in Southeast Texas. If the city and businesses stood behind literacy programs, the workforce would become more stable and dependable.

Literacy and mathematics make a community viable. Make these resources available and if businesses would make them worthy of incentives, it could only help everyone.

Expand the airport
Although capacity could be added to existing highways, rail and shipping routes, the single largest cavity in Southeast Texas is a major international airport. The current regional airport is inadequate and underutilized.

A functional airport would be capable of converting sea, land and rail cargo into air cargo as well as getting business, tourism and pleasure travelers to their destinations rapidly.

New, light cargo airplanes are about to begin production in Jasper. This will help the area significantly. However, large-capacity air transportation to other major cities across America is required for the area to succeed. The current model is a failure as evinced by the lack of cooperation from major air carriers and the lack of forethought on the part of planners.

Of course, the expansion of the airport would also require adequate mass transit beyond the confines of a single city. Transit to and from the airport must be seamless to visitor and convention areas as well as major hubs of commerce.

Mass transportation
As mentioned above, mass transportation is basically non-existent in Southeast Texas. I tried to find a map of the city's bus routes and found no maps on the Web site. It only had a schedule. Visitors would rightly not wish to use the bus system because they don't know which streets are located near where they wish to go.

So, I tried to leave a comment for the Web site administrator. I was sent to a dead link. Consequently, it's a further failure.

Incorporate a regional area mass transit plan - which specifically includes the airport. Since all the old images of Beaumont include streetcars, bring them back. Folks are far more likely to use street cars than busses. A light rail system would work best from city to city to airport, but the street cars could handle the current inner-city bus routes.

Plan for catastrophes
Hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, wildfires and chemical spills are possible. Expect them and have plans to rapidly evacuate the population from danger. Have enough sterile food, water, medicine, generators and fuel to handle rescue and relief efforts after problems arise. Know where everyone will go and how to reunite displaced families - under any circumstance.

Katrina showed how inadequate preparation and response costs lives. Expect to use every bus, airplane and train in the region to remove the most defenseless from the area before disaster strikes.

Ensure basic needs are met during an emergency. Invest in proper equipment to rapidly clear roads of significant debris and fallen trees. Time is critical, a small investment is worth every cent when lives depend on the outcome.

Bury the wires
Let's set aside the aesthetics for a moment (although for photographers it's reason enough to bury wires). The real problem in hurricane-prone areas is downed power and telephone lines. These create inconvenience for the customers as well as potentially deadly situations following heavy winds and rain.

Additionally, much of the damage I've seen after Katrina involved telephone or power line poles falling over or being snapped. Had these lines been insulated and buried instead, restoring power (assuming it went out at all) could have been far more rapid and safe in above-flooded areas.

Again, to remove the wires from poles and bury them would create additional jobs. It would require additional forethought before digging, but a well-marked line shouldn't be too difficult to locate and avoid.

Major transmission lines would still need to be on towers, but I only saw one of these lines on the highway and the towers were all still standing after Katrina blew everything else away.

Allow gambling on the Sabine River across from Orange, Texas
Like it or not, people have different moral values. Feel free to have strict moral values, but don't impose your values on others - particularly when those values harm no others.

Yes, gambling and alcohol can become dangerous to other people if taken to extremes, but so could shopping. So, it's a moot point. Those people will spend the money somewhere. If it could be spent locally to increase the tax base to support a growing commmunity, do it.

Although it would be best if folks could gamble in Texas, I understand there are some who are vehemently against it and would rather loose the revenue to another state. Fine.

Plans are moving forward slowly for a casino to be built on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River across from Orange, Texas. The property has already been purchased and I believe the casino plans are ready. Speed it up. Build the best darn casino in the South there and get some tourists heading through Beaumont and Southwest Louisiana.

The construction would create jobs. Once the casino was complete, it would create jobs for displaced New Orleans entertainment district folks as well as hospitality, food services and transportation workers. In all cases, it'll increase local revenue for Louisiana and nearby Orange Texas.

Build more, but cleaner, oil refineries in the area
New Orleans was a bad choice for oil refineries. When the levee broke, it mixed toxic chemicals into the sewage and other waste swirling through the residential "soup bowl." I expect class-action lawsuits in years to come (attention Beaumont lawyers).

However, Southeast Texas could master plan an industrial area for refineries to safely operate away from residential areas. Yes, we may get a hurricane or flood in the area, but it wouldn't have nearly the same catastrophic effect.

This would create construction jobs, refinery jobs and increase capacity to reduce fuel costs across America. It's a good investment anyway it's considered.

Traffic engineering
Traffic light engineering in Beaumont is shameful. Other than automatic right-of-way for emergency vehicles, there is no reason for any car traveling at the posted speed to need to stop for any traffic lights. It's relatively easy calculus. Put the distances between lights and the posted speed limit in a computer. It should give all the right time calculations for traffic signals. Cars move from one light to the next safely without stopping.

At a certain point at night, the signals should convert to plate operations. It's simply silly to be caught at every red light along a major street or to sit at a light for an extended time without cross traffic because the lights aren't engineered better.

Plan a real skyline
The current skyline isn't one. Coax large enough businesses into the area and make buildings worthy of respect. Yes, I'm aware of the hurricane potential here, but so are the cities of Miami, Houston, Galveston and even New Orleans.

Expand Riverfront Park
Folks are drawn to water. It calms them and lets them escape the madness of modernity. Riverfront Park is nice when it's used. However, it could easily expand northward. Furthermore, the park could offer more to visitors when events are not scheduled.

More importantly, both sides of the river could welcome some restaurants and possibly a water taxi or gondolier service. A little romance on the Neches wouldn't hurt.

Promote the arts
Beaumont may have the most museums per capita in the state of Texas, but it isn't known for its ballet. The arts are a total package. From entertainment to high art, the entire art world must be included. The arts must be funded and nurtured. Primarily, they must have public celebrations and outlets.

Admittedly, I haven't been here long. However, I've noticed excellent venues go unused more often than not. The weather in Southeast Texas seems mild enough to support the arts year-round.

If the venues are not booked, it could support pick-up acts to build a growing base of attendees. I've seen some excellent local groups perform in less-than-ideal "venues." If they could perform in the limelight, they could gain the confidence and notoriety to move beyond this area as others have done successfully. However, it wouldn't be as difficult.

Open the stage each unbooked Friday to local bands. Charge $2 each for patrons and let the bands play. Their fans get to see them and the bands get to practice in front of a live audience. It also keeps those same younger folks entertained rather than looking for less benign entertainment.

What would be wrong with Ballet Fest at the Ford Pavillion? Why couldn't there be Shakespeare in the park all summer at Riverfront Park? Is there not a black box in town that could offer local, experimental one-act play competitions each year?

Get green
I'm amazed that people publicly litter. I'm equally amazed at how infrequently some roadways are cleaned. Many schools require a certain amount of community service time in other cities.

Likewise, minor offenders are often required to perform community service by cleaning roadways and such. If litterbugs are caught and have a choice between a clean up detail or some time in the pokey, they will gladly pick up trash and are far less likely to Mess with Texas again. Hopefully, they'll convince their friends not to do so either.

Although Southeast Texas is blessed with ample resources, it's still good to reuse and recycle. It's not difficult to start a recycling program for residences, educational institutions and businesses. The programs pay for themselves over time.

Promote eco-tourism with cabins
Southeast Texas has flora and fauna unlike most other places on Earth. It has multiple examples of different vegetation and wildlife. However, those most interested must own tents, trailers or simply stay in hotels.

Instead, build cabins for eco-tourists near the sites they wish to visit. Let them save some fuel and have a rural experience. The additional benefit would be for other event overflow. When the national softball tournament comes to town, an extra team could stay in cabins instead of hotel rooms and this would allow the tournament to be larger than it is under the current limitation guidelines.

Again, construction and maintenance would create additional jobs and additional support services. I don't know the rules at Sea Rim Park, the Big Thicket, High Island or even Tyrrell or West parks, but I'm certain it wouldn't be difficult to build a self-supporting cluster of cabins for eco tourists. Sure, lock the gate at 10 p.m., but let the folks roast marshmallows and build fond memories of their time in Southeast Texas.

During the next Hurricane to the east or west, they'll know where to go for shelter, safety and maybe even some jazz. :-)

Please see the expanded plan for the Cabin Project.

Edge your lawns
This is something every homeowner could do to make the area better. It seems like a minor chore to make the city better, but I can assure everyone an edged lawn is the distinction of success.

Many successful cities employ one person to drive around town and do nothing other than edge city medians and sidewalks with a dish pulled behind a tractor. It honestly makes the entire city more attractive when lawns end at the curbs and sidewalks rather than spilling into the street.

Folks who edge their lawns care about their neighborhood. They'll also pick up some blowing trash. Or, they will hire someone who cares enough to do both. Either way, it makes the city a better place to live.

Dream big
To make a newer, safer New Orleans in Texas, people of vision must dream big (and fast). Beaumont has it's own unique history. This can be incorporated into a larger vision, but don't let it tether growth.

Imagine the greatest city between New York and Los Angeles and it could easily become Beaumont.

Enough for now,

5 Comments:

At 9/07/2005 05:56:00 AM, Blogger Laurie said...

Mark, this was just great! I would link to it but I have more New Orleans readers right now than Beaumont readers and the Beaumont readers need to be my target. I'll think of something to get more local people to read this. I (and thousands of others) have been thinking this for years but couldn't put it into words. Thanks!!

(By the way, my anti-spam word for this post was "rumyfce." That's funny.)

 
At 9/07/2005 10:03:00 AM, Blogger Ron Franscell said...

Excellent arguments, Mark. I'm not sure Beaumont has a suitable simulacrum for Bourbon Street, but hey, what's the harm in dreaming!

 
At 9/07/2005 12:26:00 PM, Blogger Rusty Surette said...

Mark - your words and ideas are brilliant! When will you be running for Mayor?

PS - I responded to this on my blog.

Peace out,
Rusty

 
At 9/11/2005 07:25:00 PM, Blogger sleepybomb said...

great points, nice try. it seems the easy is gonna be back in biz sooner than later. granted, we will have a prob with the civil servants still, but i think you should move to new orleans and run for mayor. at least you have some good ideas, and we have the clout of being the easy, tho with a smarting black eye.
i haven't seen any offers for cities to become the next big easy, great post, thanks!

 
At 9/12/2005 07:42:00 PM, Blogger Dick said...

Many of your ideas have great merit. I personally do not like some of them because I have lived in places such as University Park, landlocked by Dallas, which have had its character zapped by excessive planning and regulations.

I've also spent a lot of time in Austin and have witnessed the explosive growth which, to me at least, detracts from the quality of life. I moved back to Beaumont because I didn't want to spend precious hours of my life waiting in traffic. I appreciate Beaumont's slower pace and only a hundred or so thousand people rather than hundreds of thousands.

Officials of this area have long known the hazards posed both by nature and those externally. We may only know just how good our emergency planning is when a Katrina hits or a terrorist attacks the port or a refinery. But the local governments have been doing quite extensive emergency planning for many years. You can check out the Jefferson County Hazard Mitigiation (disaster) plan at this link: www.co.jefferson.tx.us/em/jefferson.pdf

Although I am at odds with some of your ideas, I appreciate your not being afraid to dream and conceptualize. We lose our soul when we lose our dreams.

Regards,
Dick
http://eightfeetdeep.blogspot.com
PS I really wish they'd fix the streets and sidewalks here.

 

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