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Will growth hurt, help Victoria's quality of life?

By Victoria Advocate
Aug. 13, 2011 at 3:13 a.m.

Victoria stands on the cusp of growth with expanded industry, oil production and growth in the university system. An increase in population also means an increase in traffic and stress on city services such as roads and utilities.

Few people dispute Victoria will one day soon undergo notable growth. Too many factors simply support the prediction.

Whether that growth will increase or hurt the quality of life here, however, stands as a point of debate.

Quality of life, after all, is one of those intangible ideas that differs for most everyone who measures it.

For some, an injection of new restaurants, retail outlets and entertainment venues suffices as a turn for the better. For others, the increased crime, traffic and costs to maintain roadways and other municipal services signal a lifestyle setback.

Ray Perryman, a state economist, outlined the general transformations - both good and bad - that cities undergo during periods of growth. For his assessment, he considered Caterpillar and its offshoots, expansion of the local university and Port of Victoria, revitalization of Victoria's Main Street and the effects of the nearby Eagle Ford shale.

Each of these advancements should propel the city's population and business sector, maybe more so than at any point during the last half-century.

Some positives that could arise from this growth, Perryman said, include:

An increase in the number of highly paid residents who in turn enhance the tax base, support civic activities and prop the local economy.

Increased commercial activity, such as new retail outlets, restaurants and entertainment venues - all of which support non-primary jobs and disposable income.

Spinoff industries that lead to even more jobs.

"Of course, we'll have congestion, more cars on the road," Victoria Mayor Will Armstrong, a proponent of growth, said. "But we'll also create sales taxes and ad valorem taxes, and maybe we can repair more of our neighborhood streets."

Currently, the city repairs residential streets about once every 100 years because of limited capital improvement dollars and ongoing earmarks for other projects. The city's residents have for years remained dissatisfied with the condition of such streets, according to Victoria 2025, a diverse roadmap created a decade ago and since updated.

The plan included input from residents.

If the city fails to grow, Armstrong said, so, too, will the money needed for such improvements and the number of opportunities for new business and young people.

"From the very first time I ran back in the 1970s till now, I knew we needed to make Victoria a place where young people have opportunities. If not, they move to metro areas," Armstrong said. "So, old people like me don't get to see their grandchildren. I want badly for Victoria to be a great place for young people."

Of course, growth is not always linked to widespread upgrades. As Perryman notes, such growth can lead to:

Sprawl and congested traffic.

Strains on existing infrastructure and municipal services, such as the police and fire departments.

The need for new municipal facilities such as schools, fire stations and more.

"If the growth is extremely rapid," Perryman said, "cultural issues, in terms of community cohesiveness and character, can be an issue. Negatives from growth, though, can normally be avoided through good planning."

Planning for growth, however, is not an exact science. It's only as good as the crystal ball leaders peer into. No matter how educated, this sort of planning is typically a gamble, especially in a city that lacks zoning.

"We have done a variety of growth plans over the last 14 years," Ray Miller Jr., deputy director of the city's development services department, said. "Some of what we have to do is put the cart before the horse."

During the past few decades, the city has extended infrastructure in several areas, always installing utilities that can handle current needs and reasonable future uses.

All that is under way now in Victoria, such as the construction of the Caterpillar manufacturing plant, alters this plan, which the city reviews regularly and tweaks accordingly. Efforts to maintain existing needs while laying the groundwork for the future is a constant juggling act, one constrained by limited capital improvement dollars.

What worries Jeff Williams, a lifelong Victoria resident and businessman, is the effects rapid growth could have on the city and the taxes paid by its residents. Even planners admit they can't plan fully for explosive growth.

"Growth is good in my mind if it's controlled," Williams said. "If it's explosive, somebody's going to have to bear the burden of the upfront costs. Growth can be great as long as leadership doesn't over-commit the existing taxpayers, burden them so heavily in anticipation of new people coming in. We haven't seen the growth they anticipate, but the debt's already there."

To Williams' concerns, economic development advocates say growth will help pay for growth. New residents and companies will pay taxes, which the city can use to fund infrastructure projects, they say.

If Victoria grows notably, much of its success will rest on the rate of growth and the city's ability to manage it.

City Councilman Gabriel Soliz said no matter what happens, the growth will please some residents and sour others.

"As much as we try to create a utopia, certain people are going to be more content with the way things are," Soliz said. "Quality of life is all perception. For me, it's about whether or not you're happy within your own confine."

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