Apr 22nd 2016 | Posted in Trends by Peter Partheymuller

Texas Target Communities helps smaller communities think big

There are 254 counties and more than 1,200 incorporated cities in Texas, and the vast majority of them aren’t the size of Houston or San Antonio. Nor do they boast of the wealth and industry concentration of Collin or Travis counties.

aggie_logoFor municipalities throughout the state, the big work of running a city or county government — writing a comprehensive plan or devising the future of the region’s transportation — is difficult and involves a great many hands on deck. For the bigger and wealthier local governments, though, there are large staffs and the funding to hire outside contractors and procurement consultants to aid in the process. However, for communities like Liberty County and the city of Dickinson, those tasks have largely been left to the small group of staffers on the government’s payroll.

That’s where Texas A&M University’s Texas Target Communities (TTC) program can help.

The program dates back to the 1990s, but it has ramped up its services to smaller Texas governments since John Cooper came on board in 2012. Previously called Texas Target Cities, it had involved one professor and one class working with one city, according to Program Coordinator Jaimie Masterson. Cooper went around the state and asked local government officials what they needed and if the program was of benefit. The answer was emphatic, and Masterson was soon hired as the program’s first staff person and Cooper named its director.

Since then, Texas Target Communities, Texas A&M professors and Aggie students have assisted the cities of Dickinson and Nolanville develop comprehensive plans, the city of Jonestown both conduct a public sewer feasibility study and write a transportation plan and the city of La Grange produce a housing needs study.

That last one was recognized with a Student Project Award  by the Texas chapter of the American Planning Association.

“Our goal was to connect more expertise and courses on campus with under-served Texans,” says Masterson. “We work with places that don’t have the financial resources to hire consultants and would otherwise go without these services. Also, we partner with communities that are ready and willing to go through our inclusive plan-making process, which is an intensive community engagement effort to bring all parts of the community to the table. We believe this reveals new concerns and opportunities and results in communities that have stronger social capital and buy-in to implement the projects.”

jaimie_masterson2The program works as a true collaboration between local government officials, the school and it’s students. Its staffers seek to pair an entity’s needs with a particular class of students. As Masterson explains, “We find professors interested in including service-learning into their courses and with objectives that align with the community needs.”

Though based within A&M’s College of Architecture, Texas Target Communities has formed partnerships with other university programs and departments, such as AgriLife Extension, the Center for Housing and Urban Development and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

Most of the students working on the project are in the university’s graduate studies programs, though some undergraduate classes have participated as well.

“As their project, students develop deliverables, which have included comprehensive plans, transportation plans, downtown designs, marketing materials, etc.”

Masterson says that a project’s term varies according to the community’s needs, but developing a comprehensive plan can take more than a year — the first summer for preparatory work and data collection, two semesters of course work and then another summer to finish the plan and design the final report. “Smaller projects, like a landscape architecture conceptual design, might take only a few months. We are bound by semesters, and projects are executed and completed with that in mind.”

Program participants stay in touch with each other after the project is delivered, as well, she says. “We strive to stay in contact with our community partners to ease the transition as communities work to get their plans and designs implemented.”

Participation isn’t free for the local governments — a comprehensive plan, for example, can cost $40,000, which goes to cover staff time, hired student time, travel costs, other resources and materials — but community scholarships from AgriLife Extension can offset the costs to the cities and counties.

There are no application deadlines for the program, but Masterson encourages those interested to visit the TTC website to view the process. “We recommend contacting us if you are thinking about our program, and we can begin identifying whether the courses that are place are an asset. Most of the time it is about timing: which course at which time to meet the community needs.”

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