By Ron Munden – 1/5/2020

On Friday I posted a video on EastTexasExposed.com titled, “Marshall’s Downtown Is Dying.”  It documents the status of empty buildings in the downtown area.

Last month OS2 Pub closed.  Jan Black, the owner, had battled to keep the business open for the past five years.  In one of my last conversations with her before the closing she said that during that period she had hoped that the City would take actions to revitalize the downtown, but she had given up hope.

In my opinion if the City does not effectively address this problem soon the decline will continue, and the rate of decline will increase.

A little over a month ago City Manager Mark Rohr presented a downtown redevelopment plan to the City Commission.  That night the Commissioners voiced support for the plan.  Since that time almost every comment I have received about the plan has been negative. 

On December 22 the Marshall News Messenger wrote an article titled, “Our View:  Downtown plan not transparent.”  While I do not agree with everything in the article, I do agree with most of it.  For years I have written articles calling for the city to be more open and transparent.  I also have been critical of the Memorial City Hall renovation for its lack of effective design reviews.  I do think downtown redevelopment must be open, transparent and have design reviews.

During the past 15 years I have written hundreds of articles that have been critical of City government and a handful of articles that praised the City.  Many people have pointed out that I have been overly critical of Marshall.  Those people are partly correct.  I have been critical but not overly critical.  In my opinion my criticisms have been well deserved.

For the first time in 15 years I find myself more positive on a City project than the general public.  Let me explain why.

My only direct involvement with the City was my work on the ill-fated Tourism Plan.  I served as the Tourism Task Force Manager for 18 months.

Prior to returning to Marshall I worked for the Department of Defense as an engineer and project manager for 32 years. That was followed by three years of working for Booz Allen and Hamilton as a consultant to DoD.  During that time, I worked on managing projects that ranged from $100,000 to $350 million in value.  Those experiences taught me a lot about management and the value of using strong project management techniques. During those years I learned that when good project management techniques were applied to a project the chance for success was high and when little or no project management was used projects always failed.

I also learned that good leadership always starts at the top.  Regardless how good your workforce is, if the organization lacks strong effective leadership at the top – the organization’s performance will be subpar.

During my 18 months working closely with the city in 2006 and 2007, I discovered that the City had a City Manager who either had a complete lack of knowledge about project management or chose not to use project management techniques by design.  When I developed a prototype for managing the Tourism Plan implementation and explained it to the City, I was told “that is not the way we do things in Marshall.”

Predictably, Marshall’s implementation of the Tourism Plan was a complete failure.  The City spent over $3 million dollars with nothing to show for that effort.  I must take partial blame for this.  I should have pushed my demand for effective project management and been fired as task force manager. Instead I rolled over and played dead.

Marshall has not had an effective City Manager for most of the 18 years I have been back in Marshall.  Therefore, Marshall has experienced a string of failures.  The renovation of Memorial City Hall being the latest in the string.

So, with this history why would I be optimistic now?

First, after almost 30 years Marshall has hired an outsider as City Manager.  This is good.  Cities need new blood and new blood with lots of experience in other cities is exactly what Marshall has needed for years.

I have only talked to Mr. Rohr four or five times.  Some of those conversations have only been five to ten minutes but I have liked what I heard from Mr. Rohr.  I think he has the skill set that is required to turn Marshall around.

One leading indicator – I have talked to several people in City Hall and based on those conversations I would rate the city’s workforce morale as high.  This is the first time I have observed this since I began monitoring City Hall some 10 years ago.  An organization fighting together is much more effective that an organization fighting with each other.

Also, Failure is no option – Marshall is in bad shape due to years of neglect and a string of failures.  Marshall needs a win.

Yes, Marshall has had some wins over the past 15 years, but those successes have been led by heroic individuals not associated with the City.  It’s time for the City to take the lead and get a win,

While I am disappointed with the lack of transparency associated with the Downtown Redevelopment to date, I am still optimistic the project can be successful.

First, if you view the work to date as producing a conceptual plan generated by a group of stakeholders, there is time to add transparency to the process and ensure that frequent design reviews are a part of the process.  Stakeholders for elements of the plan like Lady Bird Garden which has been in the planning by the Andersons for years can and must be added to the planning team.  Taking these steps can strengthen the process.

Second, there is nothing wrong with starting with a conceptual design instead of a blank sheet of paper.  This can speed the planning work by providing a general direction for the project.

Third, the initial work was based in part in the Tourism Plan developed by Destination Development.  Their plan was based on hundreds of interviews with Marshall residents and two status briefings which attracted over 100 Marshall citizens to each briefing.  In my opinion there was nothing wrong with the DD plan.  The problem was Marshall failed to execute the plan as discussed above.

Fourth, the scope of the redevelopment plan is correct.  It focuses on a single block.  This is achievable.  This can serve as a proof-of-concept for an expanded effort.  It is much better to complete a small project than to complete 25% of a large project.  With Marshall’s limited available resources, we must start small.

Fifth, people must recognize that everyone will not get everything they want.  Marshall does not have the resources available to meet everyone’s needs. 

I encourage the City to provide a process to collect input from many stakeholders and I encourage those stakeholders to fully participate.  I do not encourage taking a long time to do this.  Often the most effective planning is achieved when there is an urgency to complete the planning.

Finally, I urge Marshall’s citizens to not give up on Downtown Redevelopment before the project starts.

Editor’s note:
I wrote the draft of this article before I was aware that City Manager Mark Rohr was scheduled to address the Citizen’s Advisory Council on Monday.  I hope this meeting can be the first step in adding transparency to the Downtown Redevelopment project.

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