It’s been three decades since Amanda Nobles started her run with the City of Kilgore, first in a short-stint as Main Street manager then – for the past 27 years and change – as director of its economic development.
“When I came here, I was looking for a job,” she said, a single mother seeking stability and benefits, an office not far from home and her two children. “Kilgore was in bad shape … They had not come out of the crash in the mid-’80s where they lost 50 percent of their revenue. There had to be huge cuts of personnel. It was a very tough time in the city.”
Jan. 4 marked 30 years since Nobles’ first day on the job here. At the start of Year 31, the tough times are back, have been for a while, for this community and others.
Yes, there are parallels between 2017 and 1987, Nobles said Tuesday, but though the New Year has its challenges, old and new, they’re not as sharp as they might have been. Kilgore Economic Development Corporation and its industrial / commercial clients, with Nobles at the helm, have softened the blow.
“I think part of the success of the effort is evident in the fact that with this most recent downturn in the oil-and-gas sector we definitely have experienced an economic slowdown and, in some cases, businesses are no longer in business,” she said, but while the slump has had an impact, it’s not as bad as it was before: City Hall, for example, has maintained its services and its staffing. “That, I think, is kind of the hard evidence that we’re in a better position today than we were in ‘87, that we’re more equipped to weather those economic downturns than we were in in ‘87.”
Back in 1986, a friend in Longview pointed Nobles to Kilgore. The former French teacher sat down with a group of interviewers here in late-November of 1986, angling for the brand new position of Kilgore Main Street Manager.
Though the city was struggling since the oilfield collapse, “I was impressed with the team that interviewed me. I could see that they cared about this community, that they loved the community and they had a passion for the community.”
The interview gave her hope for the city’s new Main Street Program. It was just getting underway in an initial three-year commitment. The interviewers believed the program would meet some of the city’s critical needs, and it made Nobles want to be a part of it – even if, on paper, she wasn’t qualified.
“They took a risk with me,” Nobles said. “I had no downtown development experience. I knew nothing about the Main Street Program. I had really only limited nonprofit development experience. I had no finance experience. My degree is in French and history. I had taught school.”
It was a risk, but city leaders put their support behind the Main Street initiative. Nobles was cleared for training, and she was grateful to be mentored as well.
“That was extremely valuable because they shared their knowledge, their experience and taught me what I needed to know. With the help of our governmental entities, our businesses, our industries and civic groups, I was able to put that knowledge and the mentoring I received to work.”
That initial Main Street experiment, though, dominated Nobles’ time just for the first two years – the third was a transition year: her efforts had been refocused on the passage of a half-cent sales tax election. It succeeded, the city finished out the Main Street commitment, and Nobles was re-directed toward economic development.
By 1994, “I first started looking for land when our existing industrial parks were nearing capacity,” Nobles recalled. “I had a paper map. I still have it. It showed all the parcels in Kilgore. It showed the highways, and it showed the railroad tracks.”
With the help of a green marker, the map soon showed the floodplain as well.
“That area that was left was the area that I looked at for future development. There was not much available.”
The land needed to be near the railroad, near Interstate 20 and convenient to other transportation corridors. It needed to be relatively clear of oil-and-gas production.
The search ended with one possibility: the acreage that today is home to Synergy Park and its tenant businesses.
“With all of that, the board took a big risk. It was on their shoulders. The board decided to take that risk. They could see the vision, and it was very hard to see at the time,” Nobles said. Over a period of years, others also saw through the raw, undeveloped land to what it could be: “They were willing to take the risk and the criticism and stand behind it.”
For the life of Kilgore Economic Development Corporation, for the bulk of Nobles’ 30 years with the city, Nobles said, she’s tended the flow of investment, directing resulting economic development revenues and related growth toward taxing entities.
“That funnel coming from investment to the taxing entities, to the citizens, is rewarding for me,” Nobles said, “because I can see that is what enables all the taxing entities to provide the services that are needed for the citizens – and more than the services they could provide to the citizens if revenue were based on residential property tax alone.”
When Nobles’ path led her to Kilgore, it was a city dependent on oil-and-gas companies, the foundation of its heritage. Yes, there was Harris Antenna (which became Vertex, which became General Dynamics), there was Skeeter, Pak-Sher, Southern Plastics, Steelman Industries and others.
“Kilgore Plumbing was the largest employer in Kilgore. The majority of it was working with your hands. They were good jobs, but they kind of work was even then trailing out of the U.S.,” Nobles recalled. “It was obvious that diversity of the economic base was necessary. It was obvious that this had to be a concerted effort to build and to have things available that were needed by a diverse market, and to focus on that without forgetting the oil-and-gas companies that had built this community.”
Representatives of Pak-Sher, Harris Antenna, Southern Plastics and, later, Merritt Tool all approached her about the first year’s tax abatements – before the corporation, before there was revenue from the half-cent sales tax.
“The city commission and mayor and city manager worked with me, with those companies, to provide the first tax abatements for new investment,” she said. “They understood that they were not giving up taxes that they already had coming in, that they were giving up some of the future taxes for a period of time to enable these companies to make their investment. So it was an investment on the part of the city and the other taxing entities.
Before KEDC was its own entity, “The support of the city was there. They had stepped out and said, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to do this and grow a sector of the economy that is not related to oil-and-gas.’ They knew that was not going to be a quick fix. They knew it was going to be in the future before they saw the results of the efforts they were making begin to impact the city.”
Visible in the latest downturn, and in years prior, those efforts have had an impact, Nobles repeated; there’s the oil-and-gas foundation and then there’s diverse development shoring up the community.
“The problem is not solved yet. If you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards,” she added. “It’s an ongoing process. The investment still needs to be made. Cities that don’t invest in themselves don’t grow. If they don’t grow, they lose – they lose population, they lose investment.
“Of course, we’re going to continue to look at the opportunities to make those investments. We’re going to continue to operate, with our partners, the ways that we have found through the previous 30 years that are the smartest, that are the most fiscally-sound investment decisions.”
KEDC’s efforts are not gifts, she emphasized. It doesn’t assist companies that aren’t growing locally.
“We are saying to them, if you make this investment, then we will make this investment and be your partners,” Nobles explained. KEDC’s assistance is a fraction of what the companies are putting into the local economy. “The board makes decisions based on the impact of a company’s investment and job creation, what impact that has on the entire community. It is always going to be a positive and it is usually a higher number, sometimes more than 10 percent.
“The decisions that are made are sound fiscal decisions that look at the impact and that make sure that the rate of return is positive, that the investment pays out in a reasonable number of years and that those companies are ones that operate their business in the same manner, with fiscally-sound principles that provide jobs that are needed in this community.”
She’s grateful for messages from clients – whether the contact ends in investment or not – when they acknowledge the ‘customer service’ KEDC provides.
“We are ever-hopeful. We are the optimists … We’re going to continue to be good stewards,” she said, “and provide the information on the measurement of that work so that the mayor and council and the community-at-large know what the benefits are and can see that favorable distribution of tax burden which in Kilgore is 2-to-1, industrial/commercial to residential.
“That is unusual and it is not the same distribution of tax burden that is in this region.”
Thirty years in, there’s work yet to do.
When the task is securing investment, the knowledge that workers are employed and families are being supported by businesses that have partnered with KEDC is the reward.
“Without the ‘we,’ none of this would have ever happened,” Nobles said. “I have been blessed by this job, and I do have a passion for it. And I have a passion for Kilgore and have a passion for the people of Kilgore. They’re the reason that I stay.”