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Longview officials, developers report progress on Starbucks project discussions

Longview Mayor Andy Mack and representatives backing the redevelopment of a vacant restaurant site say they’ve met in the past several days and that those talks “moved the ball forward” on the stalled project.

Meanwhile, the City Council on Thursday is set to discuss a central cog in that tentative plan to convert the former Waffle Shoppe on West Marshall Avenue into a new Starbucks — digital billboards.

Talks between city officials and developers began after Lamar withdrew its request that the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment reconsider Lamar’s zoning variance requests that the board didn’t approve Aug. 20.

Lamar has agreed to take down a three-sided billboard at the Waffle Shoppe site if it can convert three other signs in Longview to digital, and developers have said that Starbucks wants the three-sided billboard taken down before it will move forward with the project. However, the city’s 2003 sign ordinances prevent that.

Mack, City Manager Keith Bonds and Development Services Director Michael Shirley met face-to-face with Lamar General Manager Dan Noyes and real estate broker John King Jr., who represents the property owner. Two other people on the development side, including Grant Gary with The Woodmont Co. of Fort Worth, joined by conference call, the mayor said.

“It was a very nice meeting,” Mack said. “We discussed how we could work with both sides to reach an agreement.

“Sometimes it’s a balancing act,” he said, “but this is the first time that I have formally met with anyone on this issue, and I’m glad that we met because I think we will reach a resolution and be able to move forward.”

King and Gary each concurred with the mayor.

“We felt it was a positive discussion that moved the ball forward on reaching an agreement that works for both parties,” King said.

Grant said, “We look forward to continuing to move forward in a positive direction towards a mutually beneficial resolution for all parties.”

Mack added that the conversations exemplify what the city is supposed to do — try its “very best” to accommodate the business community and Longview residents.

According to a discussion item on the council’s regular meeting agenda Thursday, Mack will ask council members to discuss and provide direction to city staff about digital billboards.

Mack, as well as councilmen David Wright and Steve Pirtle, have said over the past month that they want the full council to revisit the 2003 sign ordinances.

The conversion is key to a multifaceted deal that could result in Starbucks building a $2 million retail store at the former restaurant site valued at $170,210 by the Gregg County Appraisal District.

When asked what he hopes will come from discussions about the ordinance at the council meeting, Mack said, “Hopefully, a change in the digital sign ordinance that we can satisfy the needs of the business community as well as the citizens of Longview.”

East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy enrollment flat, despite recruitment efforts

Enrollment is stagnant at the East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy despite efforts to reach more potential students.

Jody Sanders, director of the Longview school, said there are about 30 students enrolled this year, which is about the same as the 35 in fall 2018 when the campus opened. About 25 are returning students. Officials said in June 2018 that full capacity at the school is 80 students.

“I just don’t get it,” Sanders said on why more students are not enrolled, especially since enrollment is free.

The academy educates area high school juniors and seniors for professional careers in machine operating, manufacturing and programming. The students are offered dual-credit courses in precision machining through Texas State Technical College and instrumentation and electrical technology through Kilgore College.

Sanders said he has visited public and private schools, church youth groups and other organizations in an effort to boost enrollment.

In October, he said he was working to contact other school districts outside the founding members of Longview, Pine Tree, Spring Hill and Hallsville ISDs.

The students enrolled this year are from Longview, Pine Tree, New Diana and Tatum ISDs, with Longview ISD having the most students enrolled, he said.

This past year, some students started the program as seniors, causing low reenrollment numbers this semester, Sanders said.

The second school year for the campus started Aug. 26 with a few changes.

One issue addressed was scheduling, Sanders said. Some of the districts that sent students to the campus on Tuesdays and Thursdays did not have anything for the students to do on their home campuses during that time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Sanders said those students now also can come Mondays and Wednesdays to work on their Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification, which makes them more employable.

Additionally, the school has industry representatives and human resources employees come talk to students and teach them about applying for jobs, mock interviews and other workforce skills, he said.

“There’s a lot we work on behind the scenes — it’s not just come here and get your credits,” Sanders said. “We try to treat this as a job for kids; so being on time, being present, not having your phone out, we work on those soft skills and that’s based on industry input.”

The school is open to all East Texas students, even those who are in private school or home schooled, he said. Anyone interested in attending needs to have completed algebra I and geometry.

“It provides them with an opportunity they would never have or never would have seen,” Sanders said. “It will open a lot of doors for them career-wise from the industry partners. It will allow your child to get so many steps ahead of their peers.”

Longview arboretum delays grand opening, hires executive director

The grand opening date for the Longview Arboretum and Nature Center has been pushed back several weeks because of what foundation board members said are “unforeseen construction delays.”

The foundation’s first executive director will start his duties next month, however.

The grand opening, billed as an “admission-free exploration” and “official blooming” now is scheduled 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Nov. 2 at the arboretum, 706 W. Cotton St. The event includes a grand opening program with local dignitaries, donors and construction crews at 11:30 a.m.

The grand opening had been set in mid-October.

On Oct. 2, Steven Chamblee will take over as arboretum executive director, foundation spokesperson Kimberly Fish said Tuesday.

Chamblee’s background includes time as a horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford. According to a July 9 report in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Chamblee formerly worked for the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, where he served first as a gardener, then grounds manager and later education director.

Chamblee received a fellowship in the prestigious Longwood Graduate Program and earned a Master of Science degree in public horticulture administration from the University of Delaware, according to the Star-Telegram.

A phone receptionist for Chandor Gardens said Chamblee left the city of Weatherford-owned facility because he accepted the job in Longview.

Texas has the most people without health insurance in the nation — again

The rate of Texans without health insurance rose for the second year in a row, making it once again the most uninsured state in the nation, according to data released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2018, 17.7% of Texas residents — about 5 million people — had no health coverage, up from 17.3% in 2017. Both years, Texas had almost double the number of uninsured people compared with the national average of 8.7% in 2017 and 8.9% in 2018. It was one of only nine states to record an increase in the uninsured rate.

Texas is one of 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid, a joint state-federal program that provides health care to low-income individuals, since the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act — better known as Obamacare. President Donald Trump made the repeal and replacement of Obamacare a major part of his 2016 campaign, but the U.S. Senate narrowly rejected a bill in 2017 that would have repealed parts of the ACA.

Last year, a federal judge in Texas invalidated a Medicaid expansion that would have filled coverage gaps for an estimated 1.1 million low-income Texans, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Between 2017 and 2018, fewer Texans got their insurance through Medicaid — the number dropped 0.7%, to 17.9%.

Some Texas political leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry, have argued that expanding Medicaid would increase health care costs for the state, especially if the federal government doesn’t keep its promise to pay for the increase in newly eligible people.

Others, like state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, are in favor of the expansion. In 2018, the senator filled a bill that would allow county commissioners to request a federal waiver to expand Medicaid in their jurisdictions and roll out the expansion county by county.

The bill didn’t even get a hearing during this year’s legislative session.

Five other states — Alaska, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and Oklahoma — also had more than 12% of their population uninsured, according to the Census figures.