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The stories we'll be watching in 2022

As we look ahead into 2022, our newsroom calendars are marked with locally important dates such as elections and the first day of school at the brand-new Denton High School campus in the fall.

Here are the top stories we’ll continue to monitor in the new year.

Open seats for 2022 elections

Dozens of candidates spread across all levels of government will be vying for residents’ votes in the new year.

That includes nearly two dozen candidates for spots in the Texas Legislature and the U.S. Congress, as well as candidates for local city councils, school boards and the county Commissioners Court.

Races to watch include the Denton City Council at-large seat being vacated by council member Deb Armintor, Denton’s mayoral race and Denton County’s newly christened Texas House District 57 seat.

District 57 was included in the new redistricting map signed by Gov. Greg Abbott in 2021.

Coming off a contentious redistricting process, members of the Republican and Democratic parties will have eyes on this year’s race for the Precinct 2 seat on Denton County’s Commissioners Court.

Criticism from residents and Denton County Democratic Party representatives focused on the population changes to Precinct 2. The precinct’s race for commissioner was decided by fewer than 400 votes in 2018, making it by far the most competitive of the four.

The filing deadline for a place in the party primaries next year already came and went, but filing for municipal races, such as for the Denton City Council, won’t come until January.

The final fate of the Confederate soldier monument

A new exhibit featuring Denton County’s Confederate soldier monument will be moved to the Courthouse-on-the-Square Museum in early 2022 after the plans were announced in April.

The monument was surrounded by controversy and protests leading up to its removal from the Courthouse on the Square lawn in June 2020, and much of that debate has stuck around. Officials have stated the new exhibit will not only feature pieces of the monument but commentary on the history of slavery as well; nonetheless, activist Willie Hudspeth, who kept up a decadeslong protest against the statue, has opposed the idea.

The exhibit was supposed to have been installed by the end of 2021, but that timeline has been pushed back. Officials have not given a reason for those delays, with the latest update from County Judge Andy Eads being that the move will likely take place sometime in January or February.

Redistricting

This past year brought local voters more political maps, which means the possibility of changes in political representation on various bodies.

Elections in 2022 and throughout the next decade will show the full extent of these changes.

The city of Denton was carved up or lumped in with large swaths of distant voters in many of the maps. Progressives have decried maps drawn by state legislators for U.S. House, Texas House and Texas Senate districts as having an inherent bias toward conservative candidates.

The same argument has been made against districts redrawn by the Denton County Commissioners Court. The reverse argument — that progressive candidates will be unfairly benefited — was made by some against the districts passed by the Denton City Council, but a majority of council members rejected those complaints and argued the since-approved map rectifies previous gerrymandering.

Sample ballots aren’t ready yet, but the Denton County Elections Administration website has an online tool that will let you know who to expect on your ballot when elections roll around in the new year.

New Denton High School will come online

After almost four years of construction, the brand-new Denton High campus on North Bonnie Brae Street is set to welcome students in fall 2022, after construction wraps up.

The new campus will be a replacement for the existing campus at 1007 Fulton St., which will eventually become the new Calhoun Middle School.

The new Denton High will be a 490,000-square-foot, two-story building with hallways feeding into the cafeteria common area and the library. The campus sits on roughly 150 acres and also will include three competition gyms, a fine arts corridor, an outdoor performance space and several sports fields. Architects designed the campus with a 2,400-student capacity in mind but said there would be room for expansion if needed.

The project was able to avoid delays that many construction sites had when the pandemic hit because Denton ISD bought all of the raw materials needed to finish the high school in early 2020, Superintendent Jamie Wilson said.

Businesses and apartments on the way

While Denton’s business landscape saw lots of comings and goings in 2021 with the closure of retail staples like Drug Emporium and downtown eatery J&J’s Pizza, next year promises to bring just as much bustle.

All eyes are on the Denton Square amid the anticipated reopening of popular retro arcade bar Free Play, which announced in June that it would relocate to the former Abbey Inn building at 101 W. Hickory St. after closing its former location amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The new space will be the North Texas arcade chain’s biggest location to date, set to house over 100 games, more than 20 pinball machines, two bars and a kitchen.

The arcade has not announced an official opening date but has been hiring staff and was hosting a limited preview event on New Year’s Eve, so all signs point to a full opening in the near future.

Denton can also look forward to several new housing developments on and around Loop 288 next year, with construction at Quincy Court Apartments at the southeast corner of Stuart Road and North Loop 288 currently underway and a rental community of 316 single-story homes expected to break ground next year. Denton Grove, a 276-unit apartment complex on South Loop 288 and Duchess Drive, is likewise anticipated to begin construction next year, with a 216-unit complex, Pebblebrook Parkside, also on the horizon for McKinney Street at South Loop 288.

The developments will help meet growing demand for housing in North Texas, with 9,500 units needed over the next five years, consultants told the Denton City Council earlier this year.


Denton
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Why is there a storybook scattered throughout the Denton Square?

Ren is a Puerto Rican boy who moves to the big city and must rediscover his sense of home — and you can read his entire journey along the Denton Square.

His story — A New Kind of Wild, by Zara González Hoang — is broken up two pages at a time in a 16-business circuit around the Denton Square.

It’s the first book included in Denton’s new StoryWalk program.

Haley Phillips is the outreach librarian for the Denton Public Library, as well as the person who brought the international StoryWalk program to Denton.

Part of her job is to get library resources outside of Denton’s three public library branches, and the current StoryWalk setup helps to accomplish that while also getting more families to walk the Square.

Nearly 500 mostly American cities participated in this year’s StoryWalk week held in November. Among them were Denton and 13 other Texas cities including Allen, Dallas and Lewisville.

“It’s booming … so it’s really cool to kind of be a part of it,” Phillips said outside the walk’s last stop at the ReadyRosie office.

Denton’s StoryWalk went up on Oct. 1, but Phillips said she’d like to see it become a permanent fixture with a rotating book on display.

She said she picked A New Kind of Wild in part because it’s full of vibrant colors with a story flow that children can follow along with despite the short jaunt between pages.

“I need there to be a substantial amount of storytelling on each page,” she explained outside of the walk’s first stop at Discover Denton on the Square.

The next book is scheduled to go up in January to coincide with Discover Denton’s Hot Coco Trail event, according to a report published by city staffers earlier this month.

The report said the walk is meant to promote “reading, family bonding, community engagement, and walking for exercise.”

Phillips said an average picture book has 32 pages, so 16 businesses likely will need to be on board for each story to make the current model sustainable, but that doesn’t mean any particular business is locked into an obligation beyond the one story it signs up for.

“If you only want to do it for a short time, that’s great,” she said.

Her long-term goal is to expand Denton’s StoryWalk into the city’s parks, but that is a more complicated process than fastening laminated pages to business windows for a few months at a time.

The original goal was to have that expansion happen sometime next year, but she said too many variables are in play. It might be 2023 before you will see children’s books lining park trails.

In the meantime, visitors can walk the Square alongside Ren as he leaves El Yunque National Forest and meets his big-city friend Ava on a circuit that features the following businesses:

  • Discover Denton
  • Norman Roscoe
  • Atomic Candy
  • Recycled Books
  • Half Pint Children’s Boutique
  • Bearded Lady Barbershop
  • UNT CoLab
  • Gnome Cones
  • Rose & Thorn Co.
  • Summit Denton
  • Salvage Secondhand Shoppe
  • Dix Coney Island
  • Theatre Denton
  • TB Winds
  • Patchouli Joe’s Books & Indulgences
  • ReadyRosie

Haley Nye Phillips, an outreach librarian at Denton’s North Branch Library, stands between signs for the StoryWalk in front of Discover Denton on the south side of the Square. The first featured book is “A New Kind of Wild” by Zara González Hoang.


The_watchdog
The Watchdog: After more than a decade of neglect everyone is suddenly worried about Texas electricity

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

I was lonely.

For more than a decade, it was as if I were the only North Texas journalist regularly covering the flaws of the Texas electricity system. It’s not that I was so smart. I heard from hundreds of readers every year who complained about the confusing and unfair deregulated market.

Yet when the Texas Legislature met, nothing ever happened. An electricity activist, Carol Biedryzcki, promoted common-sense solutions that nobody listened to. Sylvester Turner, a former state representative who is now Houston’s mayor, introduced reform bills that never got voted on.

Another Houston representative, Gene Wu, introduced fix-it bills, too. Lawmakers who cared about the issue could fit in a small elevator.

It became obvious that no governor or state lawmaker wanted to tangle with what former U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said of the electricity industry: “The most powerful, dangerous lobby … that has ever been created by any organization in this country.”

Regulators were hopeless cases, too. In desperation, I tried in 2017 to wake up the Public Utility Commission by symbolically taking away its “P.” The (p)UC didn’t care about the public, only about the industry’s needs.

Rather than send a standard paper petition to the (p)UC, I bought a foot-tall letter P at a crafts store and pasted the names of everyone who protested to The Watchdog on it. I then mailed the P to the UC. If they wanted their P back, they had to earn it.

No response. It was like shouting into an old train tunnel but hearing no return echo.

In 2015 EnergyWire profiled my efforts in a story — “Watchdog writer pitches plan to fix ‘dysfunction’ in Texas retail market.”

The story quoted me saying that buying electricity in Texas has “become a pain in the keister.”

Texas, I added, should be a role model, not “the poster child for sneakiness and profiteering.”

Then came the horrific February freezeout, and everything changed. People died. Homes were ruined. Businesses were shuttered. The suffering was immeasurable for days. One of the worst Texas weather events ever.

The story was suddenly front and center. The Texas energy house of cards collapsed. Complete favoritism toward the industry was as obvious as the noontime sun. Right before our eyes, in real time, corruption flourished.

In my first post freezeout story, I told how before the storm a flock of birds raided my backyard and removed all the red berries from the holly bushes. They knew something was up before we did.

Once the storm hit and our world shut down, I heard what sounded like a gunshot in my attic. I learned later it was the furnace motor failing. Great.

No lights. No heat. No water. I must have done web searches a dozen times to learn how to prevent frozen water pipes from bursting.

I lent my neighbors a wet/dry vacuum, a T-bar to turn off the main water valve at the curb and a snow shovel that I brought with me when I moved to Texas almost 30 years ago.

When the power returned, I began by pointing fingers at the governors, lawmakers, regulators and industry powerhouses who were responsible.

“Don’t count on state lawmakers to admit culpability,” I wrote. “And don’t trust their coming investigations to be unbiased.”

I released the 2021 edition of my annual electricity shopping guide. It’s a free step-by-step guide with tips that I’ve shared with tens of thousands of Texans, online, in the newspaper and as a paper flier.

DeAnn Walker, the chairperson of the (p)UC, who months before in a huff had eliminated the Enforcement Division, appeared before the state Senate. I called her the “incredible shrinking chairman.”

“You’re the commissioner!” one Republican senator chastised. “Y’all don’t have any teeth,” another scolded.

Her reply shows why she lost the P: “If you believe we have that authority, I’m open to moving forward with it,” Walker said. Believe it.

She resigned in disgrace and was replaced as chair by Arthur D’Andrea.

He lasted two weeks. In a 48-minute conference call with investors, first reported by Texas Monthly, he assured them he was doing everything within his power “to tip the scale as hard as I could” so billions of dollars in overcharges from the freezeout would not be reversed.

He laid out the strategy that would come later when lawmakers, the Texas Railroad Commission (regulating oil and gas) and the (p)UC approved the sale of $10 billion in bonds to pay back energy companies’ losses.

Unfortunately, companies that made millions of dollars during the crisis will see some of that bailout money, too.

Who repays the $10 billion? You. But don’t worry, it’s a long-term loan.

D’Andrea also told investors in that call that he didn’t “expect to see a ton” of improvements passed by lawmakers. He was correct. Although for the first time ever, many reform bills were introduced. Most died.

The Watchdog kept a scorecard for good reform bills. Most had notations of either “Stuck in committee” or “No action taken.”

Texans should not have been surprised at electric grid operator ERCOT’s failing. The nonprofit was a cesspool of corruption years before. In 2005, a massive procurement scandal led to criminal convictions. Fake companies were created by ERCOT managers, and millions of dollars were siphoned from ERCOT funds.

I reported how ERCOT staffers speak in jargon and gibberish. When the freezeout began and blackouts commenced, ERCOT’s tweet announced it this way: “ERCOT has declared an EEA 3. Energy conservation is critical.”

Everyone knows what an EEA 3 is, right?

In a monthly ERCOT report, I found the following acronyms: TPE, CSA, DAM, DC/BLT, GIS, COP/HSL, STWPF, MAE, IRR, RUC, SCED.

The head of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission told The Washington Post that “the ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night.”

Katie Sieben added, “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’ lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The stories were so troubling that I looked for something positive. I traveled back in time to tell the legendary story of how Lyndon B. Johnson, as a rookie congressman, brought electricity to the Hill Country.

Back to reality: Gov. Greg Abbott, who refused to put electricity reform on the agenda for three additional special legislative sessions, promised, “Bottom line is everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

More recently, he said: “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.” Yet I reported many in the gas industry, in cahoots with regulators, are getting a pass in weatherization solutions.

Let’s not forget Abbott accepted from 2017 to 2020 some $16 million in campaign donations from electric power interests.

Now it should come as no surprise that current electricity prices here in the nation’s energy capital are as high as they’ve been in memory.

Yep, this is corruption in real time, right before our eyes.

I’m not lonely anymore. I have lots of company on this now. Unfortunately, it took suffering on a massive scale to get everyone to pay attention.

But, as you know, we need a lot more than attention.


Coronavirus_outbreak
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Pandemic surge compounded by testing shortage in Denton County
  • Updated

Denton County’s virus surge has been obscured by a nationwide coronavirus testing shortage.

It’s lately become difficult for residents to find a test. At-home tests sell out quickly at local pharmacies, and professional testing sites book solid well in advance as the holidays brought people together amid the spread of the omicron variant.

Matt Richardson, director of Denton County Public Health, said his department is worried about symptomatic people who can’t get tested and then might not isolate as they’re supposed to because they don’t have a positive test result in hand.

“We’re pretty much at testing capacity at this point, and I think that’s happening across the country,” he said by phone Wednesday.

From what he’d seen, Richardson said staffing constraints were a larger problem than lack of supplies, “but that’s a moment-by-moment reality.”

Kelly Selby, a pharmacist at Community Pharmacy, said he was sold out of at-home tests Wednesday afternoon. He said he expected to get more in stock soon.

As far as testing appointments, Selby said his pharmacy is managing the increased demand.

“We’re handling what we’ve got right now, but it’s pretty full each day,” he said.

He estimated most people could get an appointment within 24 hours, but each day has filled up fairly quickly.

He said the supply of at-home tests had ebbed and flowed throughout the pandemic, which was partially because tests would come and go from the market. One batch of tests all expired earlier in the year, so his pharmacy had to dispose of them and switch brands.

He traced the current shortage back roughly two weeks.

“Before that, we could have gotten tests easily,” he recalled.

He said it’s possible the holidays brought many people together, which resulted in an easier viral spread. One family member in a gathering, for example, could catch the virus, which then would cause everybody else who was in proximity to them to want a test, as well.

There’s also been many people wanting to get tested ahead of travel plans.

“There’s been a pretty consistent demand for the PCR test because some of the countries require that for travel,” Selby said.

He estimated that 40% of all tests they’d done recently came back positive for the virus, whereas the pharmacy typically would see that number in the teens.

Public health officials were already worried that people who test positive with at-home tests wouldn’t report their results to DCPH, which means doctors and the public alike have a murkier picture of the current state of the pandemic.

Richardson said that problem is compounded by the testing shortage, and experts are starting to lose visibility of pandemic trends. Despite that, the data experts have indicated negative trends.

The number of people testing positive for the coronavirus in Denton County began trending up on Dec. 20 after more than a month of declines and another month of plateaued infection rates.

That information is available despite the scarcity of tests and fear that test results aren’t being sent up the public health chain.

Richardson said the county tried to combat that discrepancy with additional testing days operating under extended hours with more appointments available per hour.

Despite that, Denton County Public Health was booked solid days in advance this week.

“This week was the first week that we’ve run out of testing capacity since really the beginning of [the spread of the delta variant],” he said. “This is by far the most tests that have been requested really since the holidays last year.”


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