In a recent letter to the editor of The Eagle newspaper, former College Station city councilwoman Blanche Brick, a long-time and revered former history professor at Blinn College, sited Theodore Roosevelt regarding “The Higher Life in American Cities.”
In doing so, she paid tribute to local citizen groups involving themselves in municipal matters
“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 recognized the College Station Association of Neighborhoods in its quest 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 citing those who work for the betterment of their communities. But as she well knows, managing College Station’s impressive growth in recent years has been one of the city’s preeminent tasks.
As Texas A&M has grown, overseeing the accompanying growth of the community which surrounds the school has become incrementally challenging.
Kelly Templin was city manager of College Station from 2013 to 2018. Today, he is executive director in charge 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 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.”
Since 1990, College Station has doubled in size to more than 113,000 residents. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s enrollment numbers have increased from just over 40,000 in 1990 to more than 66,000 in 2018.
“When you see that kind of growth, whether you’re a city or a school, you’re suffering from ‘success,’” Templin points out. “People are coming here for a reason, both to live and to learn.
“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 business here.
“Others witness that growth and then experience the quality of life here and they want a piece of that, too.”
As College Station city manager, Templin regularly dealt with what he calls “symptoms of success.” With growth comes more congestion in traffic, particularly on the main arterials running into and out of A&M’s main campus; the need for a utility infrastructure to accommodate more people; approval decisions pertaining to both commercial and residential development opportunities; and, perhaps most importantly to a city administrator: the ongoing struggle to attract and keep quality city workers to keep the whole 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 stagnated 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.’
“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, the Texas economy surpassed that of South Korea, Russia, and Canada.
People come to Texas because we continue to lead the nation in job growth.”
The phrase “town and gown” dates back to the Middle Ages. It relates to the challenges which both communities and colleges face in a quest to peacefully coexist. That remains a viable concern, even in those rare instances where the town came after the college was established.
While Texas A&M was founded in 1876, College Station wasn’t incorporated until 1938, a rare turnabout among American college towns and one with repercussions–of the “chicken and egg” variety–that still resonate today.
For many local residents and the neighborhood associations that represent them, the center of town-and-gown debates in recent years has been the explosion of off-campus student-housing sites in College Station. These range from apartment complexes to former single-family homes converted to student residences and now affectionately called “Aggie Shacks.”
Also of growing interest on both sides of the growth issue: the increasing number of newly-constructed multi-story, multi-occupant “stealth dorms” surfacing in 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 points out.
“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 any more.
“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, and 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 a son and a daughter currently enrolled at Texas A&M. He admits he sometimes grows frustrated with the 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 evening. 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.” It’s 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, the 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, great hospitality that you don’t usually see in cities this size,” he says.
“You know, all of us who weren’t born here, we’re the ‘growth’ that people can sometimes speak critically of. And, that’s okay.”
Talk to anyone in local city government and you’ll hear that managing growth is an issue always near the forefront of municipal planning and one that requires constant consideration.
The other element of that equation is everyone needs to be a part of the solution.
As a newcomer to the area, my observation is that College Station is winning the battle to manage its growth effectively.
And its residents are doing a pretty good job involving themselves in the “solution” thing.