KINGSVILLE – Next month, Jesús Garza will begin his job as Victoria’s seventh city manager, leaving behind his most recent post in Kingsville.
Garza has spent the past three years as city manager in Kingsville, the town about 26,000 residents famous for its proximity to the King Ranch and home to Texas A&M University-Kingsville. During his time with the city, Garza worked on projects to help the city’s struggling downtown improve Kingsville’s aging streets and invest in new city buildings.
Terisa Riley, an official with the university who is also active in the city, lauded Garza as a great partner. Riley is the university’s senior vice president for fiscal and student affairs and president of the Kingsville Chamber of Commerce’s board. Riley said she worked with Garza in a number of different areas, both in her role as a university official and in her work on various city boards and committees.
“I think that one of the things I can point to is Jesús’ work on economic development,” Riley said. “We really did not have an economic development arm as well defined before his arrival.”
Like Victoria and cities across the U.S., Kingsville has struggled to support local stores downtown amid competition from online retailers and other changing shopping trends. Garza helped develop Kingsville’s downtown vision plan, which city commissioners approved in 2017.
Sitting in his Kingsville office, Garza explained how the plan was developed and what changes it outlined. The plan highlighted specific areas where local businesses, developers and the city could focus to make the area more successful. For example, the plan detailed what it would take to rehabilitate the run-down but historic Texas Theater in Kingsville, setting the building up for future use should a developer want to invest, Garza said.
To help combat boarded, empty windows, Kingsville’s City Commission approved a vacant building ordinance, which prohibited empty storefronts downtown from boarding up their windows.
“In essence, what a vacant building ordinance does is that it places certain requirements on the property owners for vacant buildings that are oftentimes boarded up, and it looks ugly,” Garza said.
The commission also approved spending $1 million to invest in downtown infrastructure, to increase lighting and widen the sidewalks in the neighborhood.
Economic development will likely be something Garza focuses on when he arrives in Victoria, depending on what issues or initiatives the City Council tasks him with.
Garza’s experience in Kingsville also includes working with a local university, which will be part of his job here in Victoria as the University of Houston-Victoria continues its plan to grow its campus and undergraduate student body.
Riley, the university official, said Garza maintained a strong relationship with Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The campus, formerly Texas A&I University, has seen massive growth in the past decade.
“Ultimately the relationship was so much better when Jesús arrived,” Riley said.
The city’s downtown vision plan included expanding the city’s bike lane network from the university campus to Kingsville’s downtown. Riley added that Garza always tried to have students or graduates work on studies or projects for city initiatives.
“He tried to recruit local talent anytime he could,” she said.
Garza also helped oversee the $6 million reconstruction of Kingsville’s City Hall, which transformed an abandoned and unused high school into a brand new facility for the government. The project was a priority of Kingsville Mayor Sam Fugate, who directed Garza to oversee the initiative.
What Garza focuses on in Victoria will be determined by the City Council. Victoria has a council-manager form of government, which works a little bit like a corporation, said Chris Coffman, the president of the Texas City Management Association and the city manager of Granbury.
Coffman describes the city manager as the chief executive of a company, and the mayor and council members as the board of directors that the manager reports to.
“A benefit to a council-manager form is it allows the administration of the city to be non-political, so you don’t end up with Republican potholes or Democratic potholes,” Coffman said.
In Victoria, the city manager’s job includes all the hiring and firing decisions for city employees and overseeing the more than 600 people who work for the local government. The city manager is also responsible for developing and writing the city’s annual budget, although City Council has the ultimate power over the budget and tax rate that is adopted. In addition to approving the budget and setting the tax rate, the council is Victoria’s legislative body, meaning that it creates policies and sets major priorities for the city. The city manager is then tasked with fulfilling the council’s goals.
Garza, who will take over the day-to-day operation of Victoria’s city government May 20, is the first outside hire for city manager in almost 40 years.
Three of his predecessors, Charmelle Garrett, Charles Windwehen and Denny Arnold, were all assistant city managers in Victoria before they were promoted to the top job.
Councilman Tom Halepaska, who was on City Council when Garrett and Windwehen were hired, said elected officials agreed they wanted an outside perspective when looking at potential hires.
“We said, ‘We’ve done it this way, we’ve hired through the ranks. This time we think we need to go outside,’” Halepaska said.