By CHRIS AGEE
Hundreds gathered in the gymnasium of First Baptist Church Friday for the second annual State of the Community Luncheon.
Organized by the Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by multiple local businesses, it was a forum for local leaders in four distinct disciplines to speak about current trends and future plans affecting Palo Pinto County residents.
City Manager Lance Howerton
Addressing a variety of Mineral Wells-related issues, City Manager Lance Howerton spoke candidly about recent accomplishments and concerns city staff are currently addressing.
Entering his 20th year in the position, Howerton began his address by touting the county’s comparatively low unemployment rate.
Standing at 5.7 percent, Palo Pinto County has a lower rate than the Texas average of 6 percent, he said. Comparing the local rate to the national rate of 7.6 percent presents an even brighter employment snapshot.
Howerton explained a period of high unemployment followed the closing of Fort Wolters in the mid-1970s, during which the community frequently experienced double-digit unemployment. He credited several factors in the marked turnaround, but noted plenty more can be done to continue the trend.
An extensive expansion project at PECOFacet showed the company’s commitment to stay in Mineral Wells, he said, and will provide job opportunities for local residents.
Other expansion projects, including those at Southwire, Ventamatic, Watkins Metal Fabrication and Tru-Test Inc., promise to add even more opportunities for the Mineral Wells workforce.
He said the establishment of new employers is a positive sign for a local economy, though expansions generally account for more new job opportunities.
“About 80 percent of job growth is expansion of existing companies,” he said.
Additionally, the city has joined efforts with the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Consortium and hopes to be home to one of six Federal Aviation Administration-approved test sites.
The unmanned aircraft trend is growing, he said, adding, “Mineral Wells is right in the middle of that.”
Howerton noted the arrival of several retailers over the past year, such as Sutherland’s, Hibbett’s Sports, Steele’s, and Old School Pizza, each of which repurposed a vacant space for their business.
“We at the city are very encouraged about the things we’re seeing,” he said.
Focusing on areas for improvement, Howerton pointed to the recently introduced initiative to create a citywide minimum housing code to focus on declining structures. He said the city has already been focusing on code enforcement within existing ordinance guidelines, issuing numerous citations for infractions, though the new code would allow city staff to more adequately deal with homes in a state of disrepair.
He said renovating the city’s neighborhoods and residential structures would entice more Mineral Wells employees to live in the community rather than commute from other areas.
Project 365, introduced by Mineral Wells Police Chief Dean Sullivan last year, is another initiative designed to both reduce crime in troubled neighborhoods and bring those areas of the city to a higher standard.
Howerton lamented a perceived lack of skilled labor in the city, noting several potential industrial projects have failed to materialize because of such concerns.
MWISD Superintendent Gail Haterius
Focusing on the unique needs of the local public school system, Mineral Wells Independent School District Superintendent Dr. Gail Haterius presented an overview of what the district is doing to better serve the city’s students.
A newcomer to the district, Haterius succeeded Dr. Ronny Collins in 2012.
“The world is changing and we have to change as educators,” she said.
A chief concern is delivering engaging lessons to students preoccupied with the latest technological gadgets, she explained.
“These kids just have withdrawal without their technology,” she added, noting district teachers must “meet our kids where they need to be met.”
While striving to motivate students with innovative teaching methods, Haterius was clear that students will not be dictating the course of study. Teachers and administrators are still in charge, she said, but will strive to embrace the manner in which today’s students process information.
Other focal points include providing adequate facilities at all city schools, remaining fiscally responsible, and continuing the conversation about school safety.
“We’ve got to provide a safe environment for our children,” she said.
In order to better prepare graduating students for the workforce, Haterius said the school district is forming a strong relationship with area industries.
Local manufacturers, she explained, send employees to the school to help train students in areas such as welding.
Additionally, students are learning basic job skills, including how to interact with adults during interviews and in other situations.
Haterius noted the MWISD budget, as with others across the state, has shrunk in recent years. However, she expressed the need to provide for students living in poverty.
She said programs such as full-day pre-kindergarten classes offer the foundation for learning students will need throughout their lives.
Palo Pinto County Sheriff Ira Mercer
First elected in 2004, Sheriff Ira Mercer presented his impressions of the county’s biggest crime-related problems and a game plan for law enforcement officers attempting to stem the tide.
He described the use and manufacture of illegal narcotics as the primary concern facing this and many other communities.
“We’re not alone in North Central Texas in having that problem,” he said.
A combination of methamphetamine entering Texas from Mexico and the county’s proximity to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex present an opportunity for more drugs to enter the area.
He also explained that three major thoroughfares – Interstate 20, U.S. Highway 281 and U.S. Highway 180 – in Palo Pinto County have each been identified as major drug courier routes.
The Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office has taken several steps in combating the problem during his tenure, Mercer said, including the formation of a City-County Narcotics Unit.
He said the CCNU, with cooperation from the Mineral Wells Police Department, focuses entirely on enforcing drug laws.
Additionally, PPSO has added a drug dog to its staff, he said.
Mercer said much of the drug problem originates with individuals living in poor socioeconomic conditions.
Forty-two percent of felony cases filed in Palo Pinto County are drug cases, he said, noting as much as 85 percent of all crimes are related to drugs “in one way or another.”
Weatherford College President Dr. Kevin Eaton
Sharing trends related to higher education in the community, Weatherford College President Dr. Kevin Eaton explained the rapid growth the school has enjoyed at its several campus locations.
Enrollment has doubled in the past 15 years, he said, and the college has new facilities in both Wise and Hood counties.
He explained enrollment has been flat over the past four years, noting an improving economy generally results in less community college students as employees are able to re-enter the workforce.
Despite a marked increase in student population, Eaton said state funding has not increased, though faculty has been able to provide excellent educations and new course offerings over recent years.
A new 108,000-square-foot facility in Wise County offers cosmetology, nursing and several other programs, he said. Donations from city, county and school entities in Hood County made another campus possible in that area.
Focusing on the Mineral Wells campus, located on Hood Road, Eaton said students entering into two-year programs such as occupational or physical therapy assisting can graduate and enter careers making $45,000 or more per year.
Other courses, such as cosmetology and truck driving school, offer further opportunities for local residents hoping to expand their employment horizon.
“We have a lot more work to do and we look forward to the future,” he said.
He ended his presentation with a slide show of Weatherford College locations and expressed a desire to establish a new facility within Mineral Wells at some point in the future.