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Sights, sounds & soul: Performing, visual arts slowly return in 2021

For Denton’s arts scene, 2021 was a year of returns.

COVID-19 put a damper on nearly countless performances and exhibits in 2020, but slowly and surely, performances came back. Exhibits returned.

Festivals had to make tough decisions — especially festivals that happened in the first quarter of 2021. The Denton Black Film Festival and Thin Line kept their events virtual, a choice they likely had to make because the planning fell in the last half of 2020, when COVID-19 still cast a pall over indoor gatherings. The Texas Storytelling Festival didn’t host its annual spring festival, but its presenter, the Tejas Storytelling Association, hosted an online summer conference that blended the festival’s typical workshops and concerts. The annual state festival returns March 10-13, with details to be announced.

The Denton Arts & Jazz Festival came back, though officials pushed the spring fest to the fall. But there was a surprising casualty — the University of North Texas Music Stage, which was a popular stage at the festival that highlighted student ensembles (jazz ensembles, most notably, but the stage brought other ensembles to the stage, too).

University officials decided to pull the plug on their long sponsorship, reporting that the $15,000 price tag wasn’t a good use of the university’s brand strategy budget. The UNT College of Music couldn’t pony up the dollars, Dean John Richmond said, because its budget had already been stretched by the pandemic’s global downturn.

Enter Denton criminal defense attorney Tim Powers.

The local attorney said he read about the loss of the stage in the Denton Record-Chronicle and decided to act.

“I have been the hugest fan of the One O’clock Lab Band for years, and the other lab bands,” Powers told the newspaper. “The program is known worldwide. I was actually at the Cork Jazz Festival when I was in Cork, Ireland. It was such a fantastic performance, and to think that the people in Denton might miss out on that didn’t seem right.”

The North Texas Fair and Rodeo returned without restrictions, and enjoyed big crowds, but Denton’s Day of the Dead Festival bowed out for a second year in a row, and UNT scaled back its homecoming festivities and suspended the annual homecoming parade.

Denton still got to enjoy the annual Holiday Lighting on the Square, which brought back in-person activities this year. And Krampus got his night under the holiday moon in downtown Denton.

Theatre Denton closed the doors of the Campus Theatre during 2020, opting to keep patrons from crowding into the modest house. But in June, the theater opened for audiences for “Always... Patsy Cline. The company recommended masks for the audience and sold tickets for 50% capacity. The performers weren’t socially distanced, and most were vaccinated.

The company returned to its typical fare later in 2021 with “Matilda the Musical,” a show that kept the stage packed and busy, but held masked rehearsals and encouraged vaccines for those eligible. The company sold tickets for 100% capacity for the August musical, and asked audiences to wear masks.

The company ended the season with “Elf,” the musical adaptation of the popular 2003 holiday comedy.

Visual artists saw their work back in galleries. Denton ISD eighth graders have work in Festival Hall through Jan. 8 at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center. The Greater Denton Arts Council also has in-person exhibits at the Discover Denton Welcome Center and the Murchison Performing Arts Center on the UNT campus. More in-person exhibits are scheduled for the Meadows Gallery, the Gough Gallery and Festival Hall in 2022.

The council hosted Thursday night programs, with requests that attendees wear masks in the galleries and Festival Hall.

The council resumed its partnership with Radical Hospitality Group, which operates a number of downtown Denton and Denton County restaurants, to bring back the young (but popular) mural project at LSA Burger Co.

The program selects artists to spend about two days painting murals on the east wall of the rooftop bar at the restaurant, which is one of Radical Hospitality’s eateries. This year, the murals followed the theme of “Soul Art Renewal.” And in 2021, the mural included a few works at the Patterson-Appleton Arts Center, too.

Denton’s music scene revived, with Dan’s Silverleaf and Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios bringing music acts back to their venues with some COVID restrictions. Andy’s Bar resumed live music, too. Though, LSA Burger Co. didn’t resume music on its rooftop stage in 2021.

Denton County's pandemic relief funding to continue well into 2022, beyond

It’s been almost two years since Denton County confirmed its first coronavirus case, but when it comes to dollars and cents, relief efforts still have a long way to go.

The backbone of the county’s relief programs is grant money — $369.7 million, as of Dec. 20. Some of that total comes from smaller and more specific grants, such as vaccination reimbursements for public health departments. But the lion’s share of the funding comes from two federal programs: last year’s CARES Act and this year’s American Rescue Plan.

According to a breakdown from Denton County Auditor Jeff May, the CARES Act ended up awarding $147.7 million, all of which was spent by Sept. 30 of this year. The ARP awarded even more in May, coming in at $172.3 million, although the county has received only half of that money as part of the plan’s two-part rollout.

The county has spent just over $6 million of its ARP money and has a deadline of Dec. 31, 2026, to allocate the rest. To date, the hundreds of millions has been put toward business grants, food programs, rent relief and other virus mitigation efforts.

Denton County COVID-19 Grant Funding


The single biggest expenditure of the money has been $52.6 million to “Public Health and Safety Response,” with other PPE and supply purchases also eclipsing the million-dollar mark. May said the county put a large portion of that money into payroll for the Public Health Department, essentially reimbursing it for millions it already had budgeted.

Just shy of $39 million was put toward Denton County’s “OPEN” business grants, which passed out relief funds to over 1,000 small businesses May through July. Per capita municipal grants also passed down $35.7 million in CARES funding to cities.

While those headliner grant-funded programs are long gone, many are still going and will continue into next year. Food, rent relief and ongoing public health efforts are the major three, county community relations director Dawn Cobb said.

The county’s food program gives insight into how grant money works its way down. Cobb said the county sought out a food program last summer, hoping to address the growing need, and settled on Ponder-based Denton Creek Farm for a box delivery system.

Dawn Cobb

“I called a number of farms and tried to get a price per 25-pound box,” Cobb said. “We even had one quote at $75, but we got $37 per box. They were local, and they had established connections to source the food.”

The farm, run by Keith and Kassandra Copp, puts together thousands of food boxes each week. As part of Denton Creek’s contract with the county, it sources the food (some grown, some purchased in bulk), packs the boxes and delivers it to over a dozen food pantries and churches.

The county has paid out millions over the course of the contract, which is set to continue through at least March. Keith Copp said there are several logistic challenges involved in a box-based food system, because the boxes need to get delivered and picked up before spoilage. There’s also the matter of sourcing enough food in the first place.

“We have flexibility — we’re not tied to certain products,” Keith Copp said. “You better get good at it after a year and a half.”

Al Key/DRC 

Keith and Kassandra Kopp at the site in Krum where fruits and vegetables are being boxed for the Feeding Denton County program.

United Way of Denton County has taken the reins for the county’s rental relief, becoming a subrecipient of the grant money. The nonprofit works with about half a dozen other agencies to handle applications for rent and utility relief. May said the county is required to audit it because of the flow of money.

The rent assistance effort is funded largely by two Emergency Rental Assistance grants, totaling over $40 million for the specific purpose. The programs aren’t set to end anytime soon, but according to Cobb and County Judge Andy Eads, officials are constantly evaluating their future.

Andy Eads

“That’s almost a crystal ball question,” Eads said. “I think in the future, we’re going to do the exact same thing as in the past — respond to what the issues of the time are.”

Grant management

Counties can’t simply spend grant money however they want. Grants lay out acceptable uses for the funding, making the purchases subject to audit. In the worst case, government officials could refuse to cover any expenses they deem don’t fall within the grant parameters.

May said that typically isn’t a problem, as grants are mostly straightforward, especially when it comes to reimbursements. But the unusual times of the pandemic have brought unusual grant structures as well.

CARES and ARP are larger grants than May’s ever worked with, and are advance funded, meaning the money comes in big batches well ahead of the spending deadline. In addition, he said, they’re so broad that it’s been a challenge to make sure the county spends the money in allowable ways.

Denton County Auditor Jeff May 

“We actually applied for [the CARES Act] and received the money 10 days later, and I’ve never seen anything like that before,” May said. “I was afraid to spend it at first because I had no idea what we could use it for. Typically, grants are very restrictive on how you can spend it.”

With the CARES Act specifically, usage guidelines and even the spending deadline itself were changed along the way. In fact, the county dumped $544,232 of the total amount into “CARES Act consulting,” including costs for attorneys that helped navigate the rules. May said the ARP will be easier to work with because of the years-long timeline.

“We have years to determine how to spend it, so we’re taking our time to get it done the right way,” May said. “We’re still having to track it all the time. … It’s not always crystal clear, but that’s what we’re continuously doing.”

Part of that work involves pushing the boundaries of what’s technically allowed under the grants. The county still has over $150 million to spend on pandemic relief, and May said the ARP’s scope would allow it to pursue projects as large as building an entirely new facility. Eads said officials also are working with cities to expand broadband access using federal funds.

“I usually try to find the legal limits and let them know what they are, so they don’t cross them,” May said.

Denton Animal Shelter closed through Jan. 4 as COVID cases rise in staff
  • Updated

The Denton Animal Shelter will be closed through Jan. 4 after an increase in COVID-19 cases among staff, a city spokesperson confirmed Wednesday.

Through Tuesday, this means general shelter operations at 3717 N. Elm St. are shut down, and animal service officers will respond only to emergency calls. People who find animals and want to turn them into the shelter should call and ask for guidance, spokesperson Stuart Birdseye said.

“Staff is still going to provide care for the animals currently housed,” Birdseye said. “The walk-in adoptions and the general opening of the facility is going to be closed. … We did see a rise in cases among staff, so we want to prevent future exposure and limit contact among staff as with the public.”

Birdseye said COVID-19 was directly affecting staff and not the animals. The closure is a measure to prevent further exposure in the community.

The closure comes as experts expect another COVID-19 surge fueled by the recently discovered omicron variant and Christmas and New Year’s gatherings. The omicron variant is highly contagious and is now the dominant strain of the virus in North Texas, according to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

The types of emergencies animal service officers will respond to will be if an animal was hit by a car, someone was bit by an animal, if there’s a rabid animal in the city or a vicious animal out.

With the new year and celebrations coming up, people may still want to set off fireworks or fire off guns even though both aren’t allowed in city limits. Birdseye said if there’s an animal emergency after shelter hours, residents still may call the shelter to seek guidance from an officer.

“An officer will be on call to respond each evening if needed,” he said.

Birdseye said residents can call the animal shelter at 940-349-7594 or call the Denton Police Department’s non-emergency line at 940-349-8181.

The week of Jan. 3, residents may call the animal shelter for appointments.

Nearly two dozen new Texas laws take effect Saturday

AUSTIN — Nearly two dozen bills the Legislature passed earlier this year will become law Saturday.

Lawmakers approved the bills, some of which relate to certain tax rules or exemptions, during the regular legislative session that ended in May. Hundreds of other new measures have already taken effect.

Here’s a look at some of the measures taking effect on New Year’s Day.

House Bill 115 exempts taxes from certain property owned by charitable organizations and used to provide housing and related services to people experiencing homelessness.

The measure removes the requirement that exempted property be located on a single campus, and requires that the housing provided on the property be permanent, among other provisions.

House Bill 1197 increases the maximum period that certain land owned by a religious organization for the purpose of expansion may be exempted from property taxation from six years to 10 years. The bill’s authors said the change is meant to benefit smaller congregations.

Senate Bill 911 makes a restaurant that holds certain alcoholic beverage permits or licenses eligible for a food and beverage certificate, among other provisions to regulate third-party food delivery services.

Supporters say the measure would help restaurants recover from the pandemic by creating clear requirements for food delivery services.

House Bill 3961 requires certain long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, to post on the facility’s website information about the state’s office of the long-term care ombudsman, which advocates for resident rights.

The measure addresses concerns that arose during the pandemic when facility closures isolated residents from loved ones for months.

Senate Bill 794 exempts homestead taxes for veterans who are considered “100% disabled” by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Senate Bill 23 requires certain counties to hold elections before reducing the funding of a county’s primary law enforcement agency or reallocating funds to different law enforcement agencies. The measure only applies to counties with a population of more than one million.

The bill’s GOP authors said the measure responds to demands to “defund the police.” Supporters say the bill ensures voter input on budgetary decisions affecting public safety. Critics say it inhibits local control of county budget processes.

Also taking effect on Jan. 1 are some bills that have sections which are already effective, including a bill that overhauled training of judges in setting bail, required collection of data, and ordered officials to look at a defendant’s criminal history before setting bail.

Another measure allows homeowners to receive their homestead exemption in the year that they acquire the property, rather than having to wait for January 1 of the following year.