In a recent letter to the editor of The Eagle newspaper, former College Station City Councilwoman Blanche Brick, a long-time and revered history professor at Blinn College, cited Theodore Roosevelt regarding “The Higher Life in American Cities.”
In doing so she paid tribute to local citizens who involve themselves in municipal matters by quoting the former president.
“The man who in the long run will count for most in bettering municipal life,” wrote Roosevelt, “is the man who actually steps down into the ‘hurly-burly’ to act with men whose ideas are not identical with his own.”
In particular Brick praised the College Station Association of Neighborhoods for its involvement in seeking to preserve “neighborhood integrity” within the city.
Their website can be found at NeighborhoodIntegrity.org.
No doubt Brick forgives TR for his singular reference to gender in honoring those who work for the betterment of their communities. His point is meaningful and relevant.
As Blanche Brick and others in local government know well, managing College Station’s rapid growth in recent years has been one of the city’s preeminent tasks.
With Texas A&M’s spectacular increase in main-campus enrollment–from nearly 40,000 in 1988 to more than 65,000 students in 2018–overseeing the accompanying growth of the community which surrounds the school has become incrementally challenging.
Kelly Templin was College Station city manager from 2013 to 2018. Today he is executive director of the Texas A&M University System’s RELLIS Campus—an academic, research, and business enclave unfurling over the footprint of the World War II-era Bryan Army Air Field site northwest of College Station.
Templin offers an informed perspective on College Station’s growth dynamic. In addition to his work here, he’s previously served as a city administrator in two other college towns.
Originally from Houston, Templin earned a master’s degree in urban planning from Texas A&M. His first job out of school was as city planner in Seabrook, Texas, a suburb of Houston on the shore of Galveston Bay.
From there, Templin moved to Oxford, Ohio, home to Miami University; and then to Auburn, Alabama, the namesake for Auburn University.
“Each of my moves to college towns involved an increase in both the size of the community and the size of the school.” Templin says. “Regardless of the numbers involved, there’s inherently angst for non-students living in a college town.
“Some angst isn’t a bad thing,” Templin points out.
Since 1990, College Station has doubled in size to more than 113,000 residents.
“When you see that kind of rapid growth,” Templin says, “you suffer from what I call ‘symptoms of success,’” Templin says. “People are coming here for a reason; not only to learn, but also to live.
“Aggies are very loyal to their alma mater,” Templin continues. “Former students, once they become successful, move back here, not just for retirement or ‘game-day’ homes, but also to establish businesses or otherwise become a part of the local workforce.
“Those who live elsewhere hear about these dynamics or experience our quality of life first-hand on game days, and they want a piece of that, too.”
As College Station city manager, Templin regularly dealt with the “symptoms of success.” More people means more congestion in traffic, the need for a more extensive utility infrastructure, oversight of both commercial and residential development expansion, and perhaps most importantly to a city administrator: the need to attract and keep quality city workers to keep the whole municipal enterprise humming.
“I wanted the challenges that came with growth,” Templin says of his time as city manager. “What you don’t want is a stagnant or diminishing local economy because that means you may have to lay off cops, shrink the fire department, or lose other key people from your city staff.”
In his city manager’s job—he was also the city’s planning director for a time in the early 2000s—Templin understood well the “hurly-burly” of which Roosevelt spoke.
“I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read, ‘You’re not in traffic. You are traffic,’” Templin laughs.
“I used to tell people here that we will never have less traffic than we have today. But that’s not just a College Station problem. That’s a symptom of our state’s growth, too.
Recently, according to Templin, the Texas economy surpassed that of Canada, South Korea, and Russia.
People come to Texas, he says, because the state continues to lead the nation in job growth.
While the “Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas” was founded in 1876, the City of College Station wasn’t incorporated until 1938. Almost always, the town comes before the “gown,” And when those dynamics are reversed–as is the case in College Station–the repercussions can resonate for decades.
For many local College Station residents and the neighborhood associations that represent them, the center of “town-and-gown” debates in recent years has been the proliferation of off-campus student-housing sites. These range from apartment complexes to former single-family homes converted to student residences, which are affectionately called “Aggie Shacks.”
Also of intrigue on both sides of the growth issue: the increasing number of newly-constructed, multi-story, multi-occupant “stealth dorms” surfacing in or near predominantly single-family residential neighborhoods.
“From a city-management perspective, you can look at this aspect of the growth issue in two different ways,” Templin suggests.
“At the end of the day, a mayor, a city council, and a city manager have to find ways to increase revenue streams to the city. That money goes into building new parks and roads and keeping good people on the city payroll.
“So when somebody comes in and says they’re going to tear down a house on the tax rolls for $50,000, and replace it with a venture that will be on the tax rolls for a million dollars, I have a hard time seeing the negative in that.
“Is there a community impact to that? Absolutely, and ultimately the council has to weigh those matters in making decisions. But when groups come in and want to put tens of millions of dollars into your local economy, I hated to dampen that enthusiasm.”
Templin says a funny thing happened in recent years to the guidelines which shape municipal bond ratings and a city’s credit worthiness.
“It used to be you were dinged for being a college town,” Templin says, “but not anymore.
“The rating agencies, like Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s, now understand that students bring with them a level of disposable income which creates a net positive for the cities in which they learn. Granted, we want them to spend their money in responsible ways. In addition, when they live off campus, we want them to be good neighbors.
“We’re fortunate in College Station in that the quality of student admitted to Texas A&M is better than a lot of places. The vast majority of our young people take seriously the Aggie core values of respect, integrity, and selfless service.”
Templin himself has both a son and daughter currently enrolled at Texas A&M. He admits he sometimes grows frustrated with college students, even his own, but not in the way you might expect.
“Yeah, mostly because when I’m going to bed,” Templin muses, “they’re just getting ready to go out for the night. I can’t keep up.
“I have an affinity for college towns because I love the enthusiasm that students bring to a place. I love to teach them, but usually they’re teaching me...although not so much when they’re driving.
“I always try to outsmart them there.”
Templin calls College Station “the almost-perfect community.” Its Central Texas location is removed from the headaches of big-city living but close enough to take advantage of the retail, cultural, and entertainment attractions of major metropolitan areas like Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and Dallas. Weather-wise, Brazos Valley summers can be hot, but the winters are typically mild, and the inland location puts College Station out of harm’s way from tropical storms and hurricanes which batter the Texas Gulf Coast from time to time.
And in scale, Templin says his home town is hard to beat.
“We have great shopping, great restaurants, and great hospitality that you don’t usually see in cities this size,” he says.
“It goes without saying that all of us who weren’t born here,” Templin continues. “The truth is, most of us are the ‘growth’ of which people can sometimes speak critically.
“And that’s okay.”
Talk to anyone who knows the issues facing local city government–people like Kelly Templin and Blanche Brick–and you’ll come to understand that managing growth is always at the forefront of municipal planning and constantly requires consideration.
There’s another element of that equation, as Theodore Roosevelt pointed out: Everyone needs to be a part of the solution.
As a newcomer to the area myself, it seems that College Station is succeeding in managing its municipal growth.
And its residents are doing a pretty good job involving themselves in the “solution” thing.