Commentary: Burleson tackles growth issues with long-time mayor at helm

Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter at the Interurban Museum.


From Burleson Mayor Ken Shetter’s desk at City Hall he looks left and sees photos of Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – stalwart representatives of the Grand Old Party with a touch of Bull Moose independence thrown in.

But when he looks right, there’s a bronze bust of John F. Kennedy staring back, representing a considerably more progressive persona.

On his desk a copy of Casey Gwinn’s Science of Hope rests, open mid-book, along with a page of the mayor’s handwritten notes on its contents – the book’s premise being that once hope exists and persists, innovation, resiliency and energy meld into the powers of progress and human achievement.

Such evidence collectively suggests that the 47-year-old Shetter qualifies as a pragmatic local politician open to new ideas and possibilities from all sides of philosophical, economic and urban spectrums, which is quite likely also a major reason his constituents keep returning him to office. Elected mayor when he was just 32, he’s now in year 15 at the job, making him one of the senior mayors in the Metroplex.

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About Burleson: Sprawling across 25 square miles with that much more in extraterritorial area, there’s a good chance the fast-growing city will just nudge the 50,000-population mark in time for the 2020 census, on its way to eventually becoming a city of 200,000. Maybe more.

The town came into being when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad – the legendary “Katy” – purchased land for a depot and surrounding community, selling the first lot Oct. 10, 1881, now considered the town founding day. This new place was named in honor of Baylor University President Rufus Burleson, who was much admired by an influential local minister.

About 75 percent of the town resides within Johnson County – the largest city in that county – but with 25 percent in Tarrant, though most of its economic, cultural and political affiliation points northward to Fort Worth and Tarrant. Population now tends to increase by about 1,500 people annually.

Shetter: “The median new home price is about $275,000, pretty much reflective of an upscale demographic and a population with high quality of life expectations from their community. That’s great, but it also creates another challenge – only about 17 percent of housing is multi-family and we also need high quality but affordable housing for our teachers, public employees, service workers and others.”

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About Shetter: He grew up in Burleson, his father a court recorder, his mother – now state Sen. Beverly Powell – no novice at politics herself. Married with three children, he holds a law degree from Baylor and a sociology degree from American University.

He’s a lawyer who no longer practices law, currently serving as president of the much-lauded One Safe Place, one component of which is a family justice center, providing integrated services to thousands of victims of family violence and children who witness violence.

“My plan was always to practice law for a few years and then transition into public service,” Shetter says. “For some people, public service is just essential to what they are. To that, I plead guilty.”

Shetter’s conversational style is high energy, non-stop, his wish list for Burleson a torrent of urban ambitions. A boiled-down sampling includes:

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OLD TOWN REINVIGORATION: The city’s original town center, four blocks mostly adjacent to City Hall, is under a rebuilding and reimaging siege at this moment, but when complete later this year will be far more hospitable to walkers and cyclists, all the better to accommodate street furniture, landscaping, lighting, sidewalk cafes, public art, and easier pedestrian access to nearby restaurants, shops and the circa-1921 Interurban streetcar depot, now a museum within Old Town. Sustainable, walkable, high quality development throughout the fast-growing city are similar priorities.

Shetter: “If you go back to the 1930s and ’40s, Old Town would have been the soul of the city and a critical part of our cultural and historical heritage. Then it began a decline that’s now reversed. Soon it will be that soul again, but in a way that works for today’s residents.”

YOUTH AND EDUCATION: At a town hall meeting early in his tenure, Shetter asked those in attendance what the city might do to become a better place for families. The big answer was to make it easier for Burleson youths to attend college – not a traditional municipal endeavor.

What evolved since then was a partnership with Hill College – a community college – in tandem with creation of an educational opportunity fund and financing system, along with a branch of the college in Burleson in a former church at which, remarkably, any Burleson high school graduate may attend without cost.

Shetter: “I believe local enrollment is in the 500 to 600 range, but I can foresee a time in the future at which the Burleson campus will be the largest in the Hill County system. Frankly, we also see a thriving college culture as a valuable contributor to both economic development and quality of life – and it’ll keep many of those young people in Burleson.”

OTHER ISSUES? Clearly to make Burleson an attractive destination for the city’s more than 400 public employees, an assortment of transportation issues, managing high quality residential and commercial development in company with expected explosive population growth, and operating local government with efficiency, providing a high value return to both residents and businesses.

“None of that comes without effort from a lot of people, but to that I’d add to that along the way it’s also our intention to also create great public spaces,” Shetter says.

And yes, Shetter would concede, that’s collectively a lot of ambition.

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.