Denison adapts to change amid COVID-19

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat
For the city of Denison, 2020 represented a year of changes and adaptation as the city adjusted to a world during COVID-19.

For the city of Denison, 2020 has been unlike any other that the city has seen. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the changes it brought with it — including a shutdown of many businesses — in many ways there is nothing to compare it to.

However, as the year comes to an end, city leaders are ultimately describing 2020 as a year of change for not only Denison but the region, state and country.

"We've had a lot of change due to the COVID-19 impact," Interim City Manager Bobby Atteberry said. "We've gone places we've never gone before or considered going before. We had a city that was effectively shut down for six week to business when it just started. It affected personnel, revenues and while we tried to maintain a budget and keep things going."

The effects of the pandemic were first felt by the city in mid-March as the first wave of COVID-19 spread across the country. This led to many closures of businesses and schools as many families transitioned to work and study from home.

On the city side, the city was forced to adjust to these changes, which included new procedures on the public safety side and shifts in schedules for other workers. Some staff also began working remotely.

This also led the city to transition much of its business into a virtual form with public meetings and other interactions conducted remotely, Atteberry said.

"The old way of doing public meetings had to change with technology," he said. "A lot of the people we are working with had never used Zoom calls."

Early into the pandemic, Denison, along with many other municipalities forecast a budget shortfall due in part to the shutdowns. While some cities expected revenues to drop by million of dollars, Atteberry said the ultimate shortfall for Denison will be about $1 million.

An artist rendering shows designs for improvements to Main Street that saw development in 2020, with construction expected to begin in January 2021.

Initial estimates for many cities called for a significant shortfall in sales tax revenue. However, this makes up a small portion of Denison's total revenue.

"I think the reason for that is that we don't have the big box stores," Atteberry said. "We have Walmart and that's it. We've learned to live with our sales tax and the businesses we have."

Instead, Atteberry said the impact was felt through other sources. Building permits were down slightly, following a five-year trend of increasing housing permits. By year's end, Atteberry said he expects the city will hopefully break even compared to 2019's record-breaking numbers. 

By comparison, Atteberry said the city had issued 172 by November — two short of what had been issued by Nov. 2019. In part, Atteberry attributed this to a shortage in building supplies as some producers were set back by early closures.

"I think we will maintain, but I don't see a big increase from 2019," he said.

The closure of many businesses, and calls for quarantines also led to a decline in police fines in 2020, Atteberry said. Likewise, Parks and Recreation saw declines in revenue from parks and other facilities being reserved for sporting events and other gatherings.

The city implemented several changes to combat these shortfalls. In the short term, a hiring freeze was put in place while budget changes and a reassessment of future projects helped balance the budget going into the new year.

The city also received about $1.4 million of emergency funding through the CARES Act for its COVID-19 response.

"The cares act is helping to replace some of that," Atteberry said. "I think at the end of the year we are going to be better off than we expected to be."

The Mayor arena at Loy Lake Park fills up as the goat showing gets underway in 2017. The city of Denison is considering an agreement that would transfer Loy Lake Park from Grayson County to the city.

Looking toward the future, Atteberry said he expects these changes will make the city more efficient in the long term.  Going into 2021, the city will likely forego many larger purchases and instead focus on construction.

One of the earliest projects to see work in 2021 will be the first phase of D3 — Designing Downtown Denison.  The $16 million project will transform three blocks of Main Street from Rusk to Houston into a modern corridor with enhances lanes, pedestrian spaces and other features.

"That will ramp up construction and by spring time it will be full-blown construction through Main Street," Atteberry said.

Other construction on the private sector will likely be seen along the city's southern border as development on Gateway Village along FM 691 is expected to continue.

Another short-term project for the city will be minor improvements to Loy Park, which was acquired by the city from Grayson County in late 2020. Atteberry said more large scale improvements will likely need to wait until a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone over the area builds up enough capital to finance projects.