Commentary: O.K. Carter: Kennedale finds itself in middle of challenges – and opportunities

🕐 6 min read

The city is popular for upscale housing with an average valuation of about $260,000, with a new mixed-use 119-home project in the downtown area just announced.

For his paycheck job, Kennedale Mayor Brian Johnson toils as professor of political science and history at Tarrant County College.

It’s a background that comes in handy for a less lucrative but extraordinarily challenging buck-a-month gig as chief elected executive of this growing but sometimes troubled little city, population roughly 7,500, spread across a bit more than six square miles.

He’s gifted in both roles and up to the task, but we’ll get back to Johnson after a brief history lesson.

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Town namesake Oliver Kennedy in 1882 decided to tap into the same mineral water strata that made Mineral Wells famous and create a health spa sort of place. That didn’t work out, but Kennedy and his business partners were enterprising, coaxing Southern Pacific Railroad to come through and encouraging enterprises like brickyards. Mostly, it was a hamlet sort of place until official incorporation arrived in 1947.

Back then, Kennedale was out in the country with wide sections of unincorporated turf between it and the cities that now surround it – Fort Worth, Arlington and Mansfield with a touch of Forest Hill thrown in.

This allowed proximity development that in time would become troublesome – most specifically, unsightly and minimally regulated salvage yards, along with several noisy auto racetracks that discouraged nearby development. And then there were a number of unwelcome sexually oriented businesses just outside what was then city limits. Collectively, the result was difficult branding.

Over the years, there were other issues. An early-1970s mayor suggested Kennedale give it up and be absorbed by growing Arlington. Very quickly, he wasn’t mayor anymore. The EPA developed major issues with the city’s sewage treatment system. Another mayor who was also a minister launched a costly and lengthy legal battle against the SOBs. Most recently the majority of the Kennedale City Council was replaced in the aftermath of escalating water bills, resulting in three new members on the five-member-plus-a-mayor council.

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Things have calmed down – sort of – with the emergence of the 57-year-old Johnson, who grew up in an Air Force family, an experience that allowed him to witness all kinds of municipal environments before moving to Kennedale in 1996.

But it was an appointment to Kennedale’s Planning and Zoning Commission that piqued his interest in the city’s future.

So much so that in 2009, he took a one-year, paid sabbatical to explore Kennedale’s transportation, development, and growth issues and was also part of the “Imagine Kennedale 2015” planning center that developed Town Center Plaza, a growing cluster of retail and offices near City Hall.

“TCC was generous enough to let me do a faculty development sabbatical, so I spent a year being at City Hall and traveling to Texas Municipal League and National League of Cities sessions, and getting acquainted with other regional organizations,” Johnson said. “It was an incredible learning experience.”

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When a vacancy occurred on the City Council, Johnson was first appointed, then elected, then winning his first term as mayor in 2014. He’s now on his second term and will be up for re-election next year.

How are things going? Volatility seems to be intrinsic to Kennedale’s political landscape, but there are positives, Johnson notes. The city is popular for upscale housing with an average valuation of about $260,000, with a new mixed-use 119-home project in the downtown area just announced.

As suburban environments go, it also has employers of substance like Fort Worth Tower, Speed Fab-Crete, ARK Contracting Services and others. For commuters, proximity to Fort Worth, Arlington or Mansfield is scant minutes away and Dallas perhaps 25 minutes.

The mayor is also a networker with purpose, participating in close to a dozen governmentally oriented groups ranging from chairing the Tarrant County Mayors Council to membership in the National League of Cities Small Cities Council.

Those constant connections are paying off.

Kennedale now, for instance, contracts with Arlington for water – that city has massive production capacity – as well as passing its sewage through the Arlington system for eventual treatment by the Trinity River Authority. Arlington will also maintain Kennedale’s water system, reducing costs in both cases.

The jail? Kennedale uses the Mansfield facility. A trade-out deal with Forest Hill gave Kennedale the SOBs’ land area and now they’ve been phased out.

“I tend to take the advice of that great philosopher Dirty Harry,” Johnson says with a laugh. “That’s that ‘a man has to know his limitations.’ When a city needs expertise, find experts. When collaboration with another community provides benefits, make it so.”

It also helps, Johnson says, to have an experienced city manager with myriad local contacts – in this case that being George Campbell, a former city manager at Arlington, Weatherford and Denton.

What’s next?

Johnson would like to complete development of the Town Center, preferably he says, “with some affordable condos.” He’d like to eventually link Kennedale parks with neighboring Arlington’s extensive trail system, and to widen Business U.S. 287 all the way to Mansfield. To do that will require collaboration with multiple cities and the Texas Department of Transportation, but that’s something he’s good at.

Like neighboring Arlington, Kennedale doesn’t have mass transit, though Arlington has recently expanded its Via partnership – small vans that provide nearby pickup and citywide access. Johnson is exploring the idea of Kennedale eventually joining that partnership.

And, he says, there’s likely a bond vote in Kennedale’s near future that would include a new police and fire station.

“I think our current fire station was built mostly by volunteers back in the 1980s,” he said.

And while he’s happy about the proliferation of high-dollar homes, he’d also like an alternative.

“Housing in Kennedale has become so expensive that many of our city employees and teachers can’t afford to live here,” he adds. “We need affordable housing for them.”

He also wants to begin planning for 2021 when a billion-dollar-plus, two- or three-year revamp of the nearby I-20/Loop 820 interchange begins. Not only will this result in traffic issues, but many commuters will then opt for taking Business 287 – right through the middle of Kennedale.

“It’ll be both an economic bonanza and a traffic issue,” he said. “We’ve got to be prepared for both.”

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

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