With Tyler City Council Election Day coming up May 1, newcomer Greg Grubb is hoping for the District 1 seat against newcomer Stuart Hene. The Tyler Loop contributor Autumn VanBuskirk spoke with both candidates in depth. You can read her interview with Hene here.
Grubb is the retired director of Tyler charitable nonprofit People Attempting to Help (PATH) and has experience in business, non-profit organizations and church leadership. Grubb decribes the role of council member as “a volunteer, non-partisan position with some highly trained, skilled staff that are going to actually be doing the day-to-day work.”
Here, Grubb tells the Loop how he seeks to fund capital infrastructure projects in innovative ways, provide for Tyler’s first responders and bring together diverse voices from the community.
Early voting for the election begins on April 19 through 27; Election Day is May 1.
In your own words, where is District 1 and are there any notable features of its population, demographic or geographical features?
District 1 is in the south central part of Tyler, basically the triangle formed by South Broadway and Old Jacksonville Highway. They meet at the top at Bergfeld Center, and then you just follow those two boundaries, generally.
There’s a little bit of a fuzziness in a couple of areas, but that’s the general boundaries — everything between Old Jacksonville Highway and South Broadway from Bergfeld Center down to Loop 49.
It’s kind of a long, narrow district. It’s highly populated, and some of the bigger, newer developments in town are out this direction. We’ve benefited greatly from the growth in south Tyler and have for years.
There’s about 12,000 registered voters in the district, and the demographics are mostly middle upper class. [There are] fewer minority residents than in some parts of town. There are some apartment complexes and some more affordable housing, and there are some higher-end developments as well as you go down there.
We don’t have very many schools in this district, which is interesting. [We have] a couple of elementary schools, but that’s about it. [We have] lots of shopping, retail [and] restaurants.
It’s a very active area. In fact, parts of it you want to avoid during heavy shopping season in normal years, because the traffic is so congested. It’s difficult to get around at times. And [traffic has] been one of the ongoing concerns of the district.
What are some issues you think Tyler is facing as a whole and how do you hope to address some of those issues?
Basically, I love the city and I think things are going well. That would be my first response — that we’re in a good spot. We’ve got lots of resources. We’ve continued to see growth, but it’s been a moderate growth, which makes it easier to handle. We’ve got so many pluses and so many resources.
The challenges we have that many folks would agree with, I think, are number one, infrastructure — especially after our issue with our water supply system last month. If it wasn’t high on your priority list before, it is now.
The basic services that the city provides are water, sewer, stormwater, runoff, handling, traffic, streets and then of course, the police and fire services on top of that.
The infrastructure part of that is not as glorious, and it’s aging in much of the city. Just like homeownership, any equipment and facilities that you own take some upkeep, and we need to continue to spend and even accelerate the progress of keeping up our infrastructure.
We don’t want to wait for some outside group [like] the federal government to come in and say, ‘Oh, wait a minute. Y’all need to spend X amount of millions of dollars to fix this. This is out of compliance.’
We’ve done that some and we need to stay ahead of that curve for that reason, but also for maintaining the quality of life that we have here. It’s only sustainable to the extent that we make it. [It’s] the way we take care of the gifts we’ve been given.
Previous generations have provided great resources here and utilize the resources as well. It’s our responsibility now to take care of those [resources] and to make sure those still work for all the citizens of Tyler.
In the Tyler Paper, you mentioned that you want to accelerate projects concerning the city’s “capital infrastructure projects, such as drainage issues and sidewalk concerns.” How do you think these initiatives will benefit Tyler?
Each of us has our own list of things that need to be fixed — certain roads that need to be repaired, certain lights that we get frustrated sitting at, certain areas that lose power more frequently or have water supply issues.
All of those things affect each of us personally in different ways. We’ve got to come together and compile a great list. There are lists already; city staff has created great lists of things that need to be done, and they get on a waiting list because there’s not enough funding to do all of them at once.
We’re too big an organization for that. But capital dollars need to be spent on capital projects, and we need to continually do that. The Half-Cent Sales Tax has been a great tool, and it allowed us to address some of those [issues], but the waiting list for those capital improvement program items is long.
Only the highest priority among the most people or the most influential or boisterous people come to the top so we need to accelerate our progress. How do we do that? Obviously, that’s going to take more money. It’s going to take money dedicated to the capital improvement projects.
[First] I would suggest that we make sure that Half-Cent Sales Tax money really is being used for capital improvement projects. Let’s not let it take over some of our ongoing maintenance items. Let’s use it for what it’s really meant to do and what we need it to do, which is to fund those capital improvements.
Secondly, I think we need to get innovative about funding those projects. When we find something that we really want to do, we find a way to get it funded. An example is a couple months ago, the financing program for the new convention center at the Rose Garden was announced, and finally, progress is going to start there. I think that’s a great project.
It took a fair amount of innovation, a combination of some money that had been set aside, some dedicating some future tax revenues [and] some private donations. Lots of different, moving parts were brought together to give us the go ahead for that project.
I just think that kind of innovative thinking is needed for some of the less glamorous projects that we have, like our streets and our water system.
On your website, you mentioned wanting to give the city’s first responders, the “tools and opportunities to protect and serve.” Tell me more about some of these ‘tools and opportunities’ you discuss and how you plan to give those to our first responders?
The first responders, our police and fire departments, have done a great job continuing to work within their budgets, which have been really limited for years now as we’ve tried hard to cut the fat, do more with less and do everything we can to make city services efficient and a great value for our dollar.
After a period of time here, you get to where you’re not cutting fat anymore and where you need to start paying attention to the people — the leaders of those departments, the people on the streets, the people actually doing that work.
Let’s say ‘What do you need to do your job?’ And much of what I’m hearing is ‘We need help. We need more people. Sometimes we’re stretched really thin.’ There’s some nighttime shifts that they feel are getting dangerously low, as far as how many people we can actually have on the streets and available for our police and fire protection.
It’s only going to take one terrible incident [for] either of those departments before we get woken up to the need to have more people on the streets. I’m for giving them what they need, which they say are more people.
They want more people, the training to actually handle the situations that they’re running up against and the opportunity to keep their skills honed, to keep themselves ready. There’s a dedicated group of people, and they’re doing an awful lot. Their pay and benefits need to be comparable to those in other areas that we’re competing with so that we don’t lose people.
We have a very experienced group in both the police and the fire departments. Many in both groups are eligible for retirement here at any moment. So we [need to] continually [bring] on new folks and new positions so that we’re ready for those retirements and can continue to provide the good services that the citizens of Tyler really want.
How do we do that? Part of that takes money as well. We’ve got to figure out how that fits into the budget and what that priority is. I don’t think there’ll be many people who will say that there’s a whole lot that’s of a higher priority to the citizens of Tyler than our police and fire protection.
We need to find ways in the budget. As an outsider, I’m not aware of what needs to be shifted or what could be shifted or how we address those issues, but by being a voice on council and being committed to bringing in more voices from throughout the community, let’s figure out what the community wants, what the priorities are, and then let’s address those according to the community priorities.
You also mentioned on your website that you want to have “unity and diversity” by “[bringing] together diverse voices from throughout the community.” Tell me some about what unity and diversity mean to you, and what are some ways you hope to bring together those voices?
Unity with diversity to me means bringing together people of different backgrounds, ages, racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds and socioeconomic backgrounds and [hearing] how we can work together, because we are in this community together.
In some ways we’re divided and we stay in our little part of town, but in some ways we’re depending on each other to provide and bring our gifts to the table. We need to make sure that everybody has a voice in that.
My experience at PATH has been bringing together all those different sectors of the community to do the work that we agreed we needed to do: provide relief and assistance for those living in poverty. That was a collaborative venture from the start.
I came up through the nonprofit ranks in that environment and brought that to the table as a director of PATH for the last eight years. I’ve seen how powerful that can be to actually get voices from people that you may not necessarily normally associate with or people who are new to the community and not just lifelong Tylerites.
There are lots of voices that we could benefit from, and we can’t do that unless we’re actually in community and in conversation. Hopefully as we get past the pandemic and can be in close proximity, we can actually bless each other by bringing our ideas and our gifts to the table.
On your website, you said you plan to “lead based on 45 years of experience in business, non-profits, and congregations.” What about these experiences distinguishes you from your opponent and how are they applicable to the situations you see present in the city?
I’ve had the blessing of having a diverse set of experiences. My first 30 years out of college, I was in the engineering and oil and gas business, which is a very bottom line focused and performance focused industry. There was a lot of pressure, but there was a lot of business experience there in addition to just the technical aspects of the oil and gas business.
It was a great blessing and really ingrained in me the need to operate a business well, to be efficient, to take care of your staff, to hire people well, bringing all those gifts to the table.
In addition, starting during that time and for a few years, I’ve been deeply involved in our church that we’ve attended for years. For 12 years, I was one of the elders at the Glenwood Church of Christ. That was a great blessing because that’s the other side of the coin.
You’re a volunteer [and] you’re dealing with volunteers. You have some paid staff, but it’s a small staff and you need to treat them well and really feed into them.
But so much of the work as a church leader is dealing with volunteers — committed volunteers, independent [and] opinionated volunteers. That really tests your thinking and your ability to lead when everybody has the option whether they want to follow or not. It takes continually feeding into those people and allowing them their say and then finding ways to move forward together.
The last eight years before I retired last summer, I was at PATH. I had been a volunteer for 10 or 12 years. That position came open; I applied for it and was given that job.
The executive director at PATH, then, is a combination of those two. You’re dealing constantly with volunteers. We had hundreds of volunteers and could not run that organization without it.
But we also had a highly competent, paid staff and the volunteer board who [were] very focused on the bottom line and how we would provide the services in an efficient, effective, highly respected way throughout the community.
It was about maintaining the culture within that organization [and] maintaining the reputation of that organization throughout the community, while continually bringing in the resources that we needed.
That diversity of background has given me different skill sets of different experiences that I think will be particularly helpful at city council where you have that wide range. It’s a volunteer position — a volunteer, non-partisan position with some highly trained, skilled staff that are going to actually be doing the day-to-day work.
City council is responsible for setting policies, for helping to maintain the culture of the organization. The City of Tyler has its own culture. We are who we are and it’s different from a lot of other cities. And that’s why I’m here, my family — that’s why a lot of us are here. We love this culture; we love this city.
In addition to your work at PATH and your history in the oil and gas industry, your website also mentioned your involvement in several housing-related projects and organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity, Tyler Community Homes, Stonegate Property Owners and the city’s Neighborhood Revitalization Board. Tell me about some of your involvement with these projects and why they are meaningful to you.
Housing is a passion of mine. I’m a firm believer that housing is the first of the essential needs. Without a home, you can survive but you’re not really going to thrive unless you have your own home. That doesn’t mean you have to own a home. It doesn’t mean it has to be big and fancy, but you need your own space. You need someplace that you and your family can live and support each other and thrive, because life is just so challenging.
My real estate development experience was really on the other end of that scale in that I was involved as an investor at first, and then as a developer of some really high-end, nice housing down in the south part of town.
That was a great opportunity to learn another side of the business [and] learn a lot about how developers do and should treat the environment, the city and the neighbors around them. That’s an ongoing process. You don’t necessarily get to do everything you want to do as a real estate owner and developer.
You’ve got to figure out a way to work within the existing system, within the existing neighborhoods and that part of town that you’re in. Traffic, drainage, utilities — all those things factor into that. You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to deal with that as a developer. So that was very interesting and challenging.
One of the biggest challenges that I faced is learning a whole new business, that side of it. My real passion has been more on the affordable housing side.
I was a volunteer with Habitat for several years [and] was on the board there. [I] really spearheaded through Tyler Community Homes [and] the expansion and redirection of PATH’s housing program, as well.
Recognizing that families in need need housing that is affordable to them at their current status, we can help people make changes. We can help people grow. We can help people to become more able to afford housing and maybe even better housing or higher quality housing. But they need some place to start.
We need to continue to provide that level of housing, where people can get in at their current income levels no matter what their obstacles are.
It may be credit records, past history of other activities, family histories and medical histories. Lots of things are holding people back, but everybody should be able to find some level of housing that they can afford and get into because without that, you really have almost no chance of thriving and moving up in our society. It’s so critical.
In the Tyler Paper, you said that you “really love this city and want to help maintain the quality of life that makes Tyler such a great place.” What are some things that you specifically love about Tyler and some things you hope to maintain?
For us when we moved here, we felt like it was a great place due to its location and the beauty and the natural resources we have. The size of the town was just right.
We are large enough where we are a hub for the East Texas region, so that we do attract visitors. We do attract investors. We do attract dining options.
All those things are here and we’re close enough to the bigger cities that if you want more, you can get to Shreveport or Dallas in an hour and a half, and so there’s always that option if you want to leave. And a lot of us do go both directions fairly often.
But just living here, the focus is so much on protecting us, ourselves, protecting our children, protecting the culture that we have here of a place where we like to determine our own outcomes, where we like the concept of local control of our government that we get to decide.
While we’re interconnected with the rest of the state and the rest of the country, we are kind of our own little part of the world here. We get to determine what that looks like and how we move forward. That sense of independence but then that sense of philanthropy as well, that we want to take care of our own.
Especially the last several years at PATH and as a nonprofit leader, I learned that this is a very giving community, and people love to give toward local charities, local organizations that are doing good local work. That’s been our priority, and I think it’s correct.
I think that’s the right priority. I’m interested in national and worldwide issues as well, but my dollars and my focus has been on what do we as a community need here and how can I be involved in that.
Why should you be the District 1 councilman?
The things that you’ve brought up, going through the information on the website and previous interviews — I think that information does sum it up well. I think my experience is such that I’ve seen a lot of different things.
I’ve had the blessing of raising a family and doing that here. My kids have moved off, but they and their kids come back frequently. We welcome our family back to Tyler very regularly.
As a father, grandfather, business leader, business owner, church leader [and] nonprofit leader, I’ve got all these different experiences to look back on and to pull from to bring to the table — to bring a sense of calm, to bring a sense of vision.
I want to continue to improve this city, because if we don’t continue to look to improve, then we’ll become stagnant and we’ll become nostalgic. We’ll search and ache for those good old days when things were better. I really think our best days are ahead, and I really want to be a part of that. And I think I can be a help.
What else is important for people to know about you?
We’ve been trying to be very helpful with sharing information. It’s not my first tendency to share a lot about myself. I’m more of a private person normally. This and other experiences have driven me out of that somewhat. And so I know that I need to share more.
I’m an investigator. I like to get information, and I like to get data. I like to research, I like to know something about a subject, maybe a little more than most, enough to satisfy my curiosity. If I’m going to have a meeting with some folks and it’s about a particular topic, I want to know what that is going in, so that I have a chance to do a little research.
I like to know what I’m getting into. I like to know I can bring something to the table and help move things along.
I think as somebody who has been doing that in this community for over 30 years in all sorts of different settings and environments, that experience will be really helpful on city council.
There won’t be a lot [that] comes up that I haven’t seen or at least heard about and hopefully have had a chance to do the research on before they are addressed at city council.
So that’s me. I’m Greg, and I love to get information. I love to hear from people. I love to have conversations and develop those relationships in a small setting.
Autumn VanBuskirk has lived in Tyler, Texas, since childhood and is currently studying English and Language and Technology at University of Texas at Tyler. For her freelance project, Autumn took a deep dive into how property taxes are administered in Tyler. Her essay and accompanying podcast demystifies this system for the rest of us and shows just how much the coronavirus pandemic has left no corner of our city untouched.
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