“Weeds were growing in the streets.”
That’s how Mayor Ronny Spradlin remembers Kilgore in the years immediately following the oil crash of the mid-80s.
“Kilgore lost half its sales tax revenue,” says Amanda Nobles, the all-but retired director of Kilgore Economic Development Corporation (KEDC), from about $2 million to approximately $1 million. The budget was slashed. Jobs were eliminated, the recreation department was eliminated... It seems like every other building downtown – half of downtown – was empty. It was bare bones time.”
City manager Ron Cox recommended, and the city commission approved, consolidating the police and fire departments into a single Department of Public Safety. Infrastructure projects were shelved... in fact, much of Kilgore’s infrastructure – water, sewer, streets – work over the past 20 years has been an effort to catch up from those years when there simply was no money.
In an effort to find a way out of the morass, the city created Kilgore Main Street, part of the state and national Main Street program, and hired Nobles to run it. The experiment lasted two years before Cox decided that was not the answer.
In those days before the state allowed a sales tax dedicated to economic development, local efforts to diversify the community’s economy largely depended on a privately-funded industrial foundation. That association of local investors helped bring Kilgore Ceramics to town and bought a piece of property that’s now Kilgore Industrial Park, the location of Southern Plastics (Closure Systems International) and across the tracks from Pak-Sher and General Dynamics, along with some property on Longview Street
When that foundation went bankrupt, banks that held the mortgage ultimately transferred it to the city of Kilgore. Similarly, the privately-owned North Kilgore Industrial Park – on Hwy 42 just north of Hwy 31 – went broke and the mortgage holder, Jacksonville Building and Loan, transferred that property to the city.
The metamorphosis accelerated when the legislature authorized cities to levy, with local voter approval, a half-cent sales tax for industrial development. A three-person committee of Randy Brogoitti, Wanda Bittick and now-mayor Spradlin, led the local effort to call and pass an election to authorize that sales tax. The election was held in May, 1990 and the new tax was put in place – only the second such in the state, Spradlin says; KEDC was born.
The Main Street program was shuttered. “Ron (Cox) moved me into industrial development and sent me to school to learn what that was,” Nobles laughs. “I had no idea.”
KEDC soon had those two industrial parks and was given some undeveloped lots on Hwy 42 south. “It was a process,” Nobles says. “We gradually acquired assets” in the form of developable property.”
At the end of the century, KEDC acquired Elder family property northeast of town, property that would become Synergy Park, a beautiful industrial and warehouse development – with its tree-ringed lake (stocked for fishing) and shaded walking trail – regularly recognized as one of the premier industrial campuses in Texas.
Over the course of 35 years since that oil field depression, KEDC has recorded one success after another – building an economic cushion designed expressly to shield Kilgore from energy price collapses like the one that punched Kilgore in the gut this spring.
The recent loss of 230 Haliburton jobs... down from a no-too-distant high of 700... will hurt. Cudd Energy Service is idled, Weatherford and Key Energy are dormant and other smaller oil and gas service companies have furloughed or terminated their crews. There is no new drilling in this area.
City hall is hunkered down, looking for ways to tighten its belt. Street maintenance will probably be deferred, police and fire department vehicles will be kept running a little longer, says city managaer Josh Selleck. Some vacant positions will be left vacant.
But weeds won’t “grow in the streets.”
From the time KEDC’s original board of directors – Dan Ballenger, Frank Brown, Sonny Spradlin, Buck Birdsong, Lloyd Bolding, Billy Hill Jr – and Nobles went to work, Kilgore has changed mightily.
KEDC programs have brought some 2500 jobs since those bleak years of the ‘80s. Non-oil field companies Orgill, Cleveland Steel Container (General Dynamics, Yamaha/Skeeter, Pak-Sher, CSI have benefited and grown with KEDC assistance but weren’t recruited by KEDC) and an enviable list of others have given our oilfield town some breathing room. Soon-to-open Wagner Tuning, a Germany-based high-tech operation manufacturing aftermarket parts for performance automobiles will add to that number.
As Tom Landry was for so long “the only coach the Dallas Cowboys have had,” Nobles is the only director KEDC has ever had. She’ll be succeeded soon by her long-time right hand, Jana Russell. And as Landry’s successor Jimmy Johnson delivered for the Cowboys, we’re completely confident Russell will deliver for Kilgore.
Current members of the KEDC board of directors are Bob Davis, Bobby Beane, Ricardo Viloria, Ruben Martin and Mike Head.
Woodall is former co-publisher (with She Who Generally Knows Best) of the Kilgore News Herald. Today he’s a columnist, a motorcyclist, a reluctant gardener, the oldest-ever (maybe) intern and municipal archivist at city hall.