San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

February 8th, 2008
The problem of Kyle

The Myth of Jones: A Column
Editor at Large

KYLE – The economic development gurus in Kyle kicked off their master plan to build a big-time money base at Thursday night’s monthly ambassador bash of the Kyle Area Chamber of Commerce (KACC).

The plan includes a mission statement that would have been laughable five years ago and even now smacks of a very long reach: “Kyle will be the premier employment center for the southern tier of the Austin metropolitan area and will serve as a destination for the best in shopping, recreation, and living in Hays County.”

Said Sean Garretson of TIP Strategies, which devised the plan, “It’s not far fetched.”

To summarize, the plan calls for Kyle to build on the Seton Hospital project to establish an economic basis in healthcare, information technology and professional services during the next three years, then biomedicine and corporate headquarters in the next five years. The city will spend $1.7 million over the next five years to implement the plan.

Like the plan, agree with it, or not, it’s a plan, and the fact that Kyle is even in a position to plan today is an indication of its recovery from chaos. And it has been chaos. No one’s fault. But chaos. And it’s not over, yet.

Planners can plan and leaders can lead, but, at some point, good leadership implies good followership, which isn’t to say citizens should simply acquiesce to leaders. It is to say that leaders and planners can’t do all the work, however much they might wish they could. Political reality demands some level of public support for the best-laid plans.

If Kyle’s leadership can’t find a way to leverage its largely disinterested population of about 30,000 into true political will, then many of the tools needed realize its economic development plans will never become available. Naturally, the proposed mobility improvements to Interstate-35 come to mind.

One feels bemusement to hear relative newcomers complain that Kyle is something of a mess today because the old-timers didn’t plan for growth. We might make a couple points just so the newer folks can at least sympathize with what has happened here, and maybe endeavor to improve the situation.

First, it’s just not realistic to figure that the lifelong inhabitants of a town numbering about 3,000 people ten years ago could have been expected to relate to the kind of growth that has hit Kyle. We can’t expect them to have understood that the town would grow ten-fold in ten years, let alone what ten-fold growth would require. They’re small-town people who understood small-town living and didn’t understand big-town living.

If they didn’t plan well for this growth, it’s because they couldn’t be expected to understand it. But if you’re looking around for who’s trying to do something about it today, you’ll find a higher proportion of old-timers than newcomers, even though the old-timers didn’t cause the crowding and the newcomers did.

Second, to make a related point, nobody plans for the kind of growth that has hit Kyle. What has happened in Kyle isn’t growth. It’s an explosion, kind of like a bomb went off, except this bomb built a bunch of houses, as opposed to bringing them down. The traffic today crawling up and down the Interstate-35 access roads around Kyle Parkway is Kyle crawling out of that wreckage.

The Problem of Kyle might be stated as the problem of any booming suburban location in times of declining citizenship. The people who create the strain by moving to the area are less likely to contribute to solutions, less likely to lift a finger, and more likely to blame the people who are trying to work solutions. That’s human nature in an alienating society that situates people as consumers rather than citizens. People moving to new communities are too busy consolidating their own affairs to invest in the commonweal. They need a few years, if they hang around for that long.

How many of the new Kylites stuck in access-road traffic every day on their way to Austin, muttering obscenities about the city’s planning, engage themselves enough in Kyle affairs to understand the difference they could make right now, today, by leaning on the county commissioners court to make those access roads one-way within a couple years? That’s The Problem of Kyle.

It’s also Kyle’s opportunity. Within the next month, the commissioners court will decide whether to call a bond election to front the improvements to I-35, or issue revenue bonds. Revenue bonds can be issued immediately because they don’t require voter approval. And the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) timeline virtually requires an immediate issue.

But the commissioners probably won’t take the expedient course unless citizens tell them to. Yet, it’s fair to wonder how many Kyle residents understand that much and are willing to act on it, even though they have the most at stake.

One might liken Kyle to Guam in that sense. About half of the people in Guam, perhaps, understand that there is such a place as Guam, and that they live there. Broadly speaking, Kylites sleep and send their kids to school in Kyle, but their lives and aspirations are in Austin. Kyle is an abstraction almost free of content, a placeholder struggling to become a place.

Kyle Mayor Mike Gonzalez made a pitch Thursday night comparing Kyle with Athens – a wishful description of Kyle, even if it’s a desirable prescription. Unlike Kyle, which mostly instantiates how consumer privacy undercuts citizen engagement, Athens was something of an ideal participatory democracy, if we forget that only land-owning males could partake.

Inevitably lacking a critical mass of citizen involvement, and understanding that such absence is a step along growth’s way, Kyle can more truly be compared with Athens in a less hopeful light: Just as Athens was defeated by Sparta, Kyle could be defeated by Wimberley. And that’s not Wimberley’s fault, by the way.

A political scientist, V.O. Key, proposed more than 50 years ago that government is under no obligation to concern itself with those who don’t participate in the political process. We can argue about whether that’s a very responsible rendering of government, but we can’t argue that elected officials answer to non-participants. They don’t.

Whatever else can be said about Wimberley, they’ve worked out an active participatory democracy. They might be radical tax haters who despise government, but they love democracy and play the game, which is why Wimberley is getting what it wants in recent countywide elections. Participation is why Wimberley has fewer people and more votes than Kyle.

In time, presumably, Kyle will develop enough participation to make its dreams come true. The question, right now, is whether Kyle can make that happen in time.

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