Paul Meltzer – Currently Mayor Pro Tem / At-Large Place 6 Council Member
How long have you lived in Denton?
I wasn’t born here, but it came as soon as I could. We came in 2008 when my wife accepted a position teaching creative writing at UNC.
In quick, rapid-fire answers, what would you say are the three things you love the most about?
I’m tempted to say the banh mi at The Pickled Carrot, the old fashioned at Miss Angeline’s, and the salmon at the Greenhouse (Restaurant). But more broadly, cool authentic-conscious people who know how to have a good time, the creative small-town vibe in a medium-sized city package, and the opportunities Denton gives to jump right in and be involved in the community.
Why are you running for the position of Mayor of Denton?
Denton is growing so fast, it’s important to me that we consciously preserve and build on its special quality so that the bigger Denton that results is still a place that we like and that we can like even more if we do it well.
Now, to accomplish that, I feel we need a teamwork approach on (City) Council to get to the best ideas. That’s where you listen to our voices, you don’t cut off mics, you try to build on the consensus, and give everybody a role in bringing forth the best ideas.
Denton has been experiencing a lot of growth over the past few years. How can it continue to expand while still keeping its local Downtown Square charm and small-town feel?
It’s a great question. We will be a bigger city. The question is, how can we be a bigger city that’s even better because we built on the qualities that we like.
So you mentioned downtown — it’s a huge success. It’s also basically one square block because it’s up on the hill and plus (the) Industrial Street area. I’ve been an advocate for several cycles now and we’ve made progress on bringing the area south of downtown out of the floodplain so that it can be an extension of that downtown experience so that people can build ideally around some kind of public space as well. You might think of Sundance Square in Fort Worth or like our own square — it’s got public space in the middle. It’s part of what makes all the lively small business atmosphere even more attractive around it.
We are known to have festivals. We should be making it easier to have festivals to put together support for those who want to do it instead of creating a sequence of hurdles for them in the way that we develop.
In the last several years, we’ve been guided by something called the Denton 2030 document that lays out a preferred pattern of development. Now what I’ve advocated for and we will finally have once we pass the new comprehensive plan is a co-equal preferred land use preservation plan. So that as we develop, … we encourage development with green space, within 10 minutes of a walk for as many Dentonites as possible, with connectivity of trails with wildlife corridors so that we don’t just have a little heat island, but we have a bigger city that feels attractive and that’s actually more sustainable, too.
We’re known for the arts, but yet we’ve actually been dwindling in terms of performance venues. So we should be attentive to adding, for instance, at City Hall West, both indoor and outdoor performance venues and up to including a landmark venue — a 1,000-seat covered amphitheater kind of venue. I’m not saying I know who the partners would be, but if we identify that as a strategic objective, we will look for ways to try to solve that.
And to keep the people in Denton that are so integral to making it a cool, stimulating place, we need to be courting employers that fit within values, specifically sustainability and creativity. So that takes you to a couple of directions. That’s continuing to invest in sustainability so that we attract the players who consider that a value for them. And I think that would create jobs that people here would like to do. And then where we’ve got innovative, creative companies starting to grow here, that are huge users of data — I’m talking about start-ups in the area of Internet of Things and artificial intelligence — let’s solve the puzzle of how we light up enough dark fiber that we’re attractive as a place to get fantastic, enterprise-scale internet access. So those are a few ways.
What are your views on expanding public transit in Denton?
As you know, Denton City Council has a member on the board of DCTA, which actually has oversight of our public transit. And I think it’s great that with our current representative that we opposed the present and former mayors’ efforts to get rid of the buses, and instead are adding more ways to make transit more convenient.
And what we’ve learned so far is that by having both fixed-route and on-demand in the right places, we’re for the first time in years increasing total ridership because we’re meeting different needs. Now, … an important next step, in my view, is to move toward having a fleet of buses and vans be clean electric vehicles that are fueled by renewable energy that they get in Denton. That’s the business we’re in is doing wind and solar contracts, and if we could actually get a fleet that’s powered by them and be electric, be emission-free, I think that would really enhance our visible sustainability and just make them more accessible at the same time.
There are a lot of road construction projects going on in Denton, with more scheduled to begin soon. What are your thoughts on these road construction projects and the frustrations they may cause Dentonites?
Well, you know, when I first became involved in city politics, and I started going door-to-door where people talked to me about, predictably and routinely, was the poor condition of the roads. And when I got onto Council, I learned that it’s not just the perception news. Twenty-four percent, roughly a quarter of our lane miles, were rated poor or very poor. And those were some of the most heavily traveled lane miles too, so the percent of your time that you’re spending on poor or very poor roads was a lot.
So I laid down the challenge at that time to say there must be a way to get to having most of the roads be in good condition most of the time. Now, that resulted in a tripling of the number of lane miles that we work on a year. Because what they had been doing was working on a “reasonable amount” and finishing one thing before they start another — something I hear often. But the problem was the roads were getting worse, not better, because while you’re not fixing them, the ones you’re not fixing are continuing to deteriorate.
So now we’ve got a ton going on and what I learned from that experience is that the thing Dentonites hate almost as much as roads being in poor condition, is roads being fixed. But that’s how you get to having most of the roads being in good condition most of the time. And in fact, in the time I’ve been in office, the percent of roads in poor or very poor condition has gone down to 14 percent. And the last number I saw, we’re on the way to 10 – 10 (percent) is the goal so that you’re mostly just doing maintenance, not digging everything up.
So I would say that we will all get through this together. The city has become really expert on trying to communicate road condition status. I think it’s a standout in terms of the interactive maps and the road construction guides that are mailed to people’s homes. There’s no question it’s frustrating, I have to drive on the roads, too. But when I see construction, I know they’re taking it from poor condition to it’s going to be great condition.
What do you think about the skyrocketing housing prices in Denton and if elected, what do you intend to do to help keep people from being priced out of their homes?
Well, as a matter of fact, it was my call from the dais to ask staff to come back to Council with an affordable workforce housing strategy using all the tools in the toolkit. That we were elected officials, were not necessarily policy experts, but we guide the staff in terms of what to work on. So ultimately, there was a consultant involved and a very thorough housing inventory, and then ultimately, a strategy that we have now approved.
In that process, it was identified that over the next 10 years there would be a gap of 4,300 affordable units between what’s needed and what the market would be expected to generate on its own. Little more than half of that rental, a little less than half homeownership.
And there are 11 tactics identified that we’re going to be pursuing. Some of them are very innovative, but I’ll tell you, the simplest one was a line item in there about just having Council approve more tax credit housing. That’s usually apartments, usually mixed market-rate and affordable. And there are tax benefits to the developer if they agree to typically 30 years of keeping the rents and the affordable part indexed to the median so that they are affordable.
I asked for the consultant to quantify each of the tactics. We know we’ve got a particular gap, so my question is does this solve it or not? In fact, even with 11 tactics, it accounted for about 40 percent of the gap. So this really motivates the private market to be inspired to follow suit and do more. But you know, it’s very significant.
But the biggest line item on all of that, the tax credit housing they quantified as being great if it generated 600 units a year. And to be honest, I wasn’t really sure that 600 units a year would show up for us to approve because it’s not Council doing it, it’s the development community. Well, I’ll tell you, once we approved that strategy and put that out there, it turns out developers like to bring us projects that will get approved. It’s great for their whole business model. So they see that we are looking for approving that kind of text credit affordable workforce housing.
It was about three weeks ago … on the agenda for one night, we had nine different projects — tax credit housing — for us to approve with more than 600 units in total represented. It’s having a dialogue with the development community, making clear what we seek. So that’s a big part of it.
What are some of the charities and nonprofits you support in Denton?
I’ve been very active. This is what this stage of my life is largely about is being of service. I had the opportunity to retire youthfully and being of service was a big goal.
So just in terms of my time, in the past it’s been everything from going to fires for the Red Cross, sacking groceries at the food pantry every week. Under the auspices of United Way I taught ESL, I did taxes for low-income folks in Spanish and English, and served as a financial coach. I helped run the Thin Line Festival for many years.
My being on council is an extension of all that. I still deliver for Meals on Wheels, including as soon as tomorrow morning. And I serve currently as community service chair for the Denton Rotary Club in which I come up with activities for our club every month. And I think that was part of a significant part of why they named me Rotarian of the Year last year, which was a nice honor.
In terms of financial contributions, I’ll just highlight a couple. One is a totally kind of homegrown operation called New Beginnings. It’s the Betty Jane Morrison Foundation for women and children who are on the verge of homelessness. They provide homes for rent and case management to help them safely bounce back. This is managed by a Denton couple and a handful of supporters. I think they are just very inspiring.
Another organization … that I’m involved in is called 100 Dentonites Who Give a Damn. I think I was the number of 40th or so Dentonite who gives a damn. … I think they’re actually over 100. Every quarter, there’s a meeting. Members of the group submit names of local nonprofits and three are invited to come and make a presentation. Everybody agrees that whoever is voted the most compelling will get all of our donations. Every quarter there’s a $10,000 opportunity for a local nonprofit and that could be Our Daily Bread or Habitat for Humanity or Friends of the Family, or any of the dozens of nonprofits we are so fortunate to have in Denton.
Please tell us about an obstacle you faced during your life you feel helped prepare you for a position to be Mayor of Denton.
The nature of the question suggests an economic struggle. I can tell you neither of my parents had college degrees, we definitely grew up struggling. And I know what it’s like to have it be difficult to make ends meet and to have to do a lot ourselves in the family to get by. So I can relate to the circumstances of many Dentonites.
But the part of my experience that I really feel prepared me for the job specifically was my profession. I was a new product manager, which means you’re very largely responsible for driving the success of the organization you work for. It requires the efforts of people all across the company, almost none of whom report to you. So that was very frustrating to me, particularly as a young intern and a new product manager. But you learn how to succeed in that environment or else you washout, and that didn’t happen to me.
So you learn how to set goals that are motivating for people across the company, and how to enroll people in those goals and give them the role in the spotlight in developing the solutions. Then you learn how to listen to all the members of your team, especially the ones who disagree with you. I keep a little card in my pocket that says “she might be right” or “he might be right.” Because you want to hear from every perspective to make sure that the solutions that you come forward are the best they can be. So if there’s a vulnerability and someone else has spotted it, you want to know about that.
So that is shockingly similar to our weak mayor system. The mayor doesn’t have a veto. Here he’s one vote among others. But there is that similar opportunity to keep the broadest strategic perspective possible to enroll people in truly meaningful goals, and to hear all voices (and) not cut off mics.
What are your hopes for the future of Denton — where do you see Denton going?
I truly believe the best Denton lies ahead. I believe we will be a bigger, vibrant city that’s intelligently interpenetrated with green space, parks, and trails. That has more fun public spaces surrounded by thriving small businesses in that kind of live/work/play downtown, where people have cool jobs and careers that leverage our creativity and commitment to sustainability. A city that’s a magnet for the arts. It’s a great place to live, work, and play even for people who are doing remote work based in other cities. Being a great place to live is at this stage of our economy an economic development strategy.