The only Democrat in the Texas Senate District 30 special election, Jacob Minter, carried the Denton County vote, but Republicans Drew Springer and Shelley Luther are headed for a runoff on a date yet to be set.
In unofficial results from the 14-county area that makes up the district, Springer received 21,903 votes (31.83%) to Luther’s 21,814 (31.7%). Springer, R-Muenster, currently represents Texas House District 68. Luther, a Denton County resident, became known for defying the governor’s orders by opening her Dallas salon during the pandemic.
Under state law, a candidate must receive 50% of the vote plus one to win.
Minter, an electrician, received 3,476 votes from the portion of Denton County in District 30 and 14,493 votes (21.06%) overall.
Outgoing Denton Mayor Chris Watts garnered 4,324 votes across the district. Also running on the Republican ticket, businessman and entrepreneur Craig Carter received 3,802 votes, and Andy Hopper, a software engineer and adjunct professor at the University of North Texas, received 2,471.
The District 30 office is being vacated by Sen. Pat Fallon, R-Prosper, who won the Republican nomination to run for U.S. House of Representatives to replace John Ratcliffe, R-Heath. Fallon is on the ballot for the Nov. 3 general election.
Denton County elections officials said voting Tuesday went smoothly but that a line of voters at the Denton Civic Center delayed vote tallying.
At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday — half an hour after polls closed in the state Senate special election — dozens of voters remained in line at the Civic Center waiting to cast their ballots.
“We’ve been in line since about 6:40,” James Willis said. “The turnout is actually surprising. It’s a special election, so we didn’t think it would be this bad.”
“This is an election of great importance,” said Craig Covello, who waited to vote with his wife, Karen. “What bothers me is who is running. We came to Texas from California almost 10 years ago, and the stereotype, which I don’t think is true, is that we bring the liberal agenda here. At least our vote counts here. It doesn’t count in California.”
He said he would be voting for Luther.
“I think she’s going to win because of name recognition.”
“I think everybody’s hyped up because of the presidential election,” Matt McCann said as he waited last in line at the Civic Center.
The pandemic wields a particular kind of threat for towns like Denton.
The economic fallout of COVID-19 is claiming live music venues. Over the summer, the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs predicted that 90% of Austin’s live music venues could be closed by Halloween.
Denton only recently earned a designation as an official Texas Music Friendly Community, but the pandemic could change that. And Denton had only about five venues booking music between four and six days a week when the novel coronavirus shut down bars.
“If you lost two of those — if you lost Dan’s [Silverleaf], Andy’s [Bar], Rubber Gloves or Harvest House — if you lost two of those venues, you might as well not say you’re a music-centered town anymore,” said Scott Danbom, known best for his work as a keyboardist for Centro-matic and other acts and a staff member of Dan’s Silverleaf. “Obviously, I work at Dan’s and I’m biased. But there aren’t that many venues in Denton, and, yeah, if you lost any of those it would be horrible.”
The National Independent Venue Association is among industry groups lobbying for House Bill 7806, the “SOS Act” — Save Our Stages. The act would funnel $10 billion through the Small Business Administration in grants to live music venues across the country.
It sounds like a lot of money, but Edwin Cabaniss, owner of The Kessler Theater in Dallas and a production company, The Kessler Presents, said North Texas music buffs should put the millions in perspective.
“Ten billion sounds like a lot,” Cabaniss said in a recent Zoom meeting, titled “Is Live Music Dead?”, with Dallas-Fort Worth music advocates hosted by 24HourDallas. “But in a $2 trillion stimulus package, that’s one-half of one percent to save all the small to midsize music markets in the country with that.”
Cabaniss didn’t mince words about what could await small business owners who offer live music four to seven nights a week. After raking in $25 billion across the nation in 2019, live music venues have lost 90% of their revenue during the pandemic. And this can’t go on much longer, Cabaniss said.
“Right now, I suspect if nothing is passed — and we need to get it done in the next couple of weeks just to have time to fully implement it before the election — if this thing doesn’t work and doesn’t get done ... you’re looking at the collapse of the small to midsize music economy,” he said. “So when I say we’re in intensive care, we’re looking at the loss of 75 to 80% of these small businesses.”
Dan Mojica, co-owner of the storied Dan’s Silverleaf, and Rob Houdek, who renovated and reopened the equally storied Denton venue Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in 2019, both said they can last through the end of the year.
“We’re going to be here,” Mojica said. “We’ve pivoted. We really started doing the streaming concerts not long after we had to close the doors. The streaming shows are something you can do while abiding by social distancing guidelines, and we’ve had success with that. And our patrons have been so incredibly supportive. A lot of people wanted to help us and did.”
But that doesn’t mean Denton’s music venues are in the clear — not at all.
“I think we’re both cautiously optimistic,” said Houdek, whose general manager and booking agent, Chad Withers, is the only employee of about 13 to survive the shutdown. Withers and Houdek have spent the shutdown improving Rubber Gloves’ new outdoor stages, storage and bar areas. They’re eager to reopen.
“We’re a music venue that has a bar,” Houdek said. “We’re designated as a bar, which means we’re not allowed to open. But we’re first and foremost a live music venue. Let me put it this way: We intend to make it.”
Rubber Gloves has been part of Denton’s cultural scene for nearly three decades. Withers said the bar has always been about music first, hosting all-ages shows for most, if not all, of its history.
“When I was 17 and 18 years old, me and my friends would drive here from Austin to see shows,” Withers said. “I went to [the University of North Texas] partly because of the time I spent here. This place is what kept me coming here, and I want to see us keep that alive.”
Withers was Rubber Gloves’ only full-time employee when the pandemic hit, but a dozen other employees worked the door, the bars and shows. Houdek said the rehearsal studios are rented and have been in use during the pandemic.
Mojica said money from the Paycheck Protection Program was a boon to his employees, most of whom work 35 hours a week at the bar.
“I’m not a fan of this administration, but the PPP, those monies came through fast for our people, and it made a lot of difference,” Mojica said.
The lockdown of live music venues severely impacts musicians, Danbom said.
“Every stepping stone of anyone’s early career is built on playing shows,” he said. “The whole idea of getting an agent — unless you’re super lucky or a combination of certain things — that’s all dependent on getting out there and playing. No one wants to hire you unless you tour a bunch. They’re not going to make a decision about representing you without that. They’ll come and check you out. It’s a constant circuit of shows.”
Rubber Gloves might need to beef up its staff to operate safely.
“Before the pandemic, if you bought a beer, Chad would open your beer, hand you your ticket and run your card or take your cash,” Houdek said. “After the pandemic, we’d probably need people to place an order, have a runner get your drink to you and take your money. We might need more people.”
Mojica said Dan’s Silverleaf would reopen with reduced capacity and streaming content. In fact, the bar will stream a Slobberbone show at 8 p.m. Oct. 10.
“We’ve already got a couple for different configurations in the bar. If we have a totally seated show like Jimmy Webb — as opposed to a Brutal Juice show where we take every stick of furniture out of there, you’re going from 75 to 250 people,” he said. “But with the ability to livestream, our capacity can go from 200 to 200,000.”
Houdek said he can ride out the storm, even if it means paying utilities and licensing for music performance through the end of the year.
“This is a labor of love for me,” he said. “We intend to be here. I don’t see how you can be a music community without having someplace for musicians to play. I know other owners might not be able to hang on. But we intend to be here. We’re not a place where you come here and just buy a drink. We’re a place where you come, buy a drink and see a show that you might never forget. These are intimate venues in Denton. That’s an experience that you can’t always get. We know what it means, and we’re not going anywhere.”
A new, larger North Texas Fair and Rodeo complex will allow for year-round events and could bring in an annual $15.3 million from out-of-county visitors alone, according to a presentation from executive director Glenn Carlton.
Carlton showed off the concept for the new complex, the North Texas Expo Center, during Tuesday’s Denton County Commissioners Court meeting. In the past budget year, the county partnered with the North Texas State Fair Association to partly fund a study on the fair’s economic impact. In conjunction with that study were plans for the center, which commissioners and the public got a look at Tuesday.
The center, with four buildings, is planned for a site north of Denton, west of Interstate 35 and between Milam and Ganzer roads. Carlton said at least one more building could be added as planning moves forward but that as is, the center would exceed 300,000 square feet, dwarfing the existing indoor fairgrounds on North Carroll Boulevard in Denton by over 250,000 square feet.
Carlton said the Expo Center would be more versatile in the events it could host because of its increased size, as well as more climate control, with most of the center’s buildings being interconnected. The goal would be to host anything from the annual fair and rodeo to concerts year-round.
“We want it to be multipurpose and serve this community not just nine days a year but 365,” Carlton said. “This is all designed with many other thoughts in mind.”
The fair association is also proposing a new road between Milam and Ganzer Road West to increase access to the new fairgrounds.
As Tuesday’s presentation was just for the center’s concept, a construction timeline has not been formed. County Judge Andy Eads said a committee could be formed later this fall to move forward with the plan and explore uses of the land identified for the center, as well as the county’s land adjacent to it. Carlton said no further steps would likely be taken until then.
Michael Bomba, a research professor at the University of North Texas’ G. Brint Ryan College of Business, presented the results of the economic study, which examined the potential impact of the center — both its construction and operations.
Bomba said construction of the center would cost about $99.5 million, not including the cost of the land and with the assumption that it would be built over one year. Once operational, the center would have additional event capacity and would bring in an annual $15.3 million from non-Denton County visitors alone after a five-year ramp-up period, according to the study’s projections. The study also found the center would add 165 new direct and 38 new indirect jobs to the county.
Bomba said the study shows demand for a larger event venue, especially given the county’s size.
“Denton County is a large county and it’s growing — you’re definitely undersized,” Bomba said. “It seems there’s a lot of demand, especially for the equestrian events, because people are driving very long distances to go to these events and they would rather have them closer by.”
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson gave his weekly report on the state of the coronavirus pandemic. He noted that virus cases among children and teens ages 0-19 — a concern of the department’s given the reopening of schools — decreased in the past week from 113 to 88. Cases among people ages 70-79, however, nearly doubled from 14 to 27.
Commissioners also accepted the 2020 certified appraisal roll Tuesday. The estimated appraisal roll was presented last month and was not certified until recently as the Denton Central Appraisal District worked through the pandemic to handle protests of property values.
The total appraised value for 2020 is $125.8 billion, up from $118 billion in 2019, and the net taxable value is $112 billion, up from $106.2 billion. Eads said this year marks the latest the county has ever placed accepting the appraisal roll on its agenda.
Yan Yang, a 21-year-old student, took his own life following a pattern of nationalistic harassment at US Aviation Academy in Denton, according to court filings.
Yang’s parents are now suing the academy for upward of $1 million, alleging wrongful death and gross negligence, among other things.
The arguments laid out in the filings allege a few broad things: That Yang was harassed by academy employees because of his nationality, that staff members declined to act on information that he was experiencing anxiety and depression because of how he was treated, that these actions led directly to his death, and that employees attempted to keep a witness from testifying after the fact.
Arguments also lay out a restrictive environment in which Chinese students must live in academy-provided apartments, cannot use any vehicles other than those owned by the academy, cannot take trips outside their apartments and must work harder than their non-Chinese peers just to get by.
The academy student handbook, included in court filings, makes clear that students are not allowed to drive or ride in any automobile or motorcycle not owned by the academy. The penalty for doing so is immediate termination. Students are meant to be able to coordinate a ride with an academy employee for errands or recreational activities, but that is limited within the handbook guidelines.
“Taking a trip by yourself or with a group of friends, away from your apartments, is not allowed,” the handbook reads. “This is for your safety.”
Yang’s death has not been any great secret over the past year. Social media speculation and analysis of his death on April 16, 2019, and its circumstances were widespread in the weeks following his death, but the documents filed in Denton County’s 158th Judicial District mark one of the first formal legal steps for Yang’s family.
One internet blogger posted a since-demonetized video to YouTube discussing the circumstances within two weeks of Yang’s death.
Mark Taylor, an executive vice president and co-owner of US Aviation Group, said he hadn’t seen the court filings when contacted by phone Monday afternoon.
He declined to answer specific questions about the case, citing legal advice. He declined to name the law firm the company had retained for the case.
Attorneys for Yang’s family did not return a request for comment.
Some of the most shocking things included in documents filed this past week include allegations of punishments doled out exclusively to Chinese nationals studying at the academy.
The academy’s student handbook makes clear English is the official language of the academy and no other language can be used on the campus or in academy vehicles.
The handbook listed a $50 fine for the first instance of speaking anything other than English. Other fines included a $75-plus charge for not keeping their apartment clean and a $75 charge for having alcohol in the apartment.
Fines double after each violation, according to the handbook.
Jianghao Lin, an academy alumnus and former mentor of Yang’s, said under oath that many of these rules were applied only to Chinese students.
“I have personally observed students from other countries, including Cambodia, Africa and Mexico, speaking their native language in front of [US Aviation Academy] staff and were never punished,” he said in a sworn affidavit.
Furthermore, he said under oath that former instructors admitted to him the academy “teaches instructors to mistreat the Chinese cadets and threaten termination as an intimidation tactic.”
Perhaps most damaging to Yang, according to legal filings, was the constant threat of expulsion exemplified through the occasional review boards he was subjected to. The review boards allegedly painted an inaccurate picture of Yang as a substandard student who was falling behind.
Yang, and other Chinese students, would then be required to sign the reviews, thereby agreeing to the misleading charges under intimidation by academy employees, according to the allegations.
Yang and his family lived in a small village near Huai’an, Jiangsu Province, China. Like many international students, Yang’s schooling was paid for by a foreign airline under the assumption he would pass his certifications and work for the airline after graduation.
Students who don’t graduate from the US Aviation Academy are stuck with picking up the tab for their education without the prospect of a lucrative aviation job.
The academy’s website lists flight training program prices for several countries ranging from $47,000 to $74,000.
Filings argue the academy had a financial incentive to kick students from the program early to make room for the next student.
Liu, in his affidavit, said he personally reviewed all four of Yang’s review boards.
“Each Review Board contains numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations regarding Yan’s performance at USAA,” he said.
Liu also stated the academy, after finding out he planned to testify in pending litigation related to Yang’s death, rushed him through the program in hopes of graduating him early and sending him back to China before he could testify.
Attorneys for Yang’s parents claim intentional infliction of emotional distress, gross negligence, negligence and wrongful death and seek “monetary relief over $1,000,000.00 and non-monetary relief, in addition to all other relief to which Plaintiffs may be justly entitled.”
They request an eventual jury trial. No such trial was listed in Denton County court records Tuesday afternoon.