Thursday, January 3, 2013

RICHARD GREENE: Voters instinctively knew lake was part of city destiny

 (Editor’s note: This commentary column is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our community was shaped by ten things that didn’t happen.” Today’s commentary is about the second of those ten things.)

By the year 1954, “boy” Mayor Tommy Vandergriff had been elected to a second term in office following his successful effort to convince General Motors to build a new plant in Arlington.

Shiny new cars were already rolling off the assembly line and the city’s population had topped the 20,000 mark.

It was time, he declared, to prepare for the growth of the city that he predicted would one day be home to 100,000 people.

Such an astonishing forecast amused many of the townspeople. There were reports of some saying such growth was a mere fantasy in the mind of the young mayor still short of his 30th birthday.

However, their delight with the notion turned to wrath when Tommy announced the city council was going to call an election to develop a lake to serve the needs of a city that would grow to such an unimaginable size.
Richard Greene

He also described the necessity of increasing the ceiling on the tax rate so the city could borrow enough money to fund the lake project. That proposal would also be put before the voters for their consideration.

Now, things would get very serious. The infatuation over the boy mayor had, for many, run its course.

Soon a meeting would be called to organize the opposition to the youngster’s plans. The idea of a lake, of all things, would come to be characterized as “Vandergriff’s Folly.”

Adversaries to the plan puzzled, first of all, over how a lake could be developed in a dry creek bed. On its face, it seemed to be a crazy notion. Secondly, the town had perfectly good water wells and could dig another if needed. But a lake? No way.

Their strategy was to defeat the irrational concept of a completely unnecessary expenditure of money the city did not have, for something it did not need and raising taxes to pay for it. After scuttling the lake, the next thing for the opponents to do would be to elect a new, more mature mayor the following spring.

Interestingly, leaders among these naysayers who named themselves the Arlington Taxpayers League involved some of the town’s prominent citizens, including a leading physician, a land developer, a General Motors supervisor and a grocer.

The theme of the Arlington Taxpayers League was that of “offering progress on a sane basis – not on wild reckless spendthrift programs.”

They launched an aggressive campaign to beat back the proposals. Giant headlines in newspaper ads included warnings of Taxpayers Beware! and Danger Ahead! and calling for the support of “every taxpayer to prevent great harmful effects” of the lake project and the accompanying tax increase.

Try as they may, they were no match for the well-prepared mayor who had done his homework and established a compelling case for the need of a future water supply to support the fast growing community.

That summer Vandergriff had led the council to declare a water emergency and pass an ordinance to ration the use of the precious resource. A $200 fine would be imposed on anyone watering their lawn except at prescribed hours and on certain days. In today’s dollars that would amount to about $1,700 – a pretty steep penalty.

He had also involved the area’s top civil engineering firm to identify the best place to build a dam and develop a lake. With great confidence, they selected historic Village Creek as the waterway meandering through the area west of the city on its way to the Trinity River.

True, it was sometimes without much water running through it but even regular rainfall caused it to fill up to its outer banks. They said a lake would develop behind the proposed dam in about two or three years.

There was one other thing that wasn’t a big issue in the campaign to win voter approval but really important to Vandergriff. When General Motors had questioned whether Arlington had sufficient water supplies to support the company’s plans to build the big plant three years earlier, the mayor had assured the world’s largest corporation that he would see to it.

Election Day that year produced the largest voter turn out ever seen up to that time. You know the outcome – the lake proposal won by a big margin.

It seemed the town’s citizens grasped the belief of their community growing to a size five-fold larger than it was the time. They felt an adequate water supply was necessary to support that kind of expansion.

Vandergriff would tell me many years later, as the city’s population topped the 300,000 mark, that he often wondered if he should apologize for his lack of vision.

As for that engineering forecast that it would take two or three years for the lake to fill up – it wasn’t even close. After the dam was completed, it started raining; and 27 days later Lake Arlington had become a reality. Vandergriff’s Folly from then on would be known as the Miracle Lake.

So, there you have it. The second thing that didn’t happen that shaped our city was that Arlington voters didn’t listen to the naysayers.

In fact, that election would launch a tradition of optimism among Arlington residents believing in the possibilities – the quintessential “yes we will” answer they would give over and over for the next five decades to produce the city we have today – a city not possible without an abundant supply of water.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.

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