Fight Over Community Building Heats Up Tiny Central Texas Town of Staples
By Kate Groetzinger
Bill York, 70, remembers going to the general store in the Central Texas community of Staples in the 1950s.
“It sold everything from barbed wire to cheese and meats to canned goods to overalls and candy,” York said. “You’d go in there and pick out what you wanted and put it on your charge account.”
While the physical structure is still there, the general store is no longer open. Staples was once a thriving community with two doctors, two cotton gins and a school, residents say, but the town has fallen on hard economic times.
Staples didn’t incorporate as a city until 2008, when a section of the Texas 130 toll road was built two miles from town and the possibility of being annexed by nearby San Marcos seemed imminent to some residents. Most of the 200 or so people of Staples didn’t want to be under the jurisdiction of San Marcos or any municipal government. So, in what was perhaps a slightly counterintuitive move, the town decided to incorporate and form its own municipal government, one that is extremely limited — the town only has one police officer, doesn’t collect property taxes from land owners and doesn’t have a court to enforce any of its laws. But Staples is being forced to do something, and residents are riled up.
The Staples Center — or the Civic Center, as some residents still call it — is the only building owned by the town, and it is close to falling down. The Staples City Council has decided there are two options — give the building away or empty the city coffers to restore it.
Staples raises money by taxing the utilities that supply power and water to residents, as well as the handful of businesses in town. In keeping with the small government, anti-tax ethos of the community, the city spends very little of the money it collects. The city’s primary expenses are an annual $2,000 donation to the volunteer fire department, utilities for the Staples Center, food for community gatherings and a small cash prize to the homes with the best Christmas decorations each year. With those expenses and a small but steady income, Staples has saved $69,000 during the past decade.
Almost all of that money would likely be needed to bring the Staples Center back to working condition. The two-room wooden structure was built in the 1920s and has served many functions throughout the past century. York remembers eating lunch in the two-room wooden building, which served as a cafeteria for the public school he went to in the 1950s.
“All the food that we ate was prepared by three older women, and all the food was home-grown,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe how good that food was. I got an A in lunch.”
In addition to a lunchroom, the building has served as a community center, according to Peggy Anderson, 66, a life-long Staples resident and the town’s unofficial historian.
“It has several other good functions and could still be utilized,” she said. “There used to be meals for senior citizens, every day of the week for a while. And voting was held there. Then there was a thrift store that opened after the city incorporated to help fund the city.”
Anderson is in favor of saving the building, which she says still has some life left in it. She and resident Russell Grumbles, 66, have formed a coalition to fight for the building’s restoration.
“We just want to know the facts,” Grumbles said. “I’m trying to get as much information as I can, because I think I’m up against a pretty biased council.”
Since its monthly meeting in October, the five-member city council has discussed giving the Staples center to the nearby York Creek Volunteer Fire Department York, which expressed interest in building a new station on the land. Since citizens of Staples rarely attend council meetings, few residents were aware of the plan until a town hall meeting in November.
During the meeting, which was held in a former Baptist church and well attended thanks to free barbeque, Mayor Eddie Daffern presented the option to give the building to the York Creek Volunteer Fire Department. Word of the building’s possible fate spread after the meeting, and about twenty concerned residents showed up to the December council meeting.
During that meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Carol Wester, 49, gave a detailed presentation describing all of the building’s flaws. Wester said the building is infested with termites, sits on a rotten foundation and is literally coming apart at the seams.
“It’s so bad that I can stick my first through a hole in the back wall,” Wester said.
Wester knows the building well. She is the former president of the Staples Civic Club, which met in the building until the town incorporated in 2008, and has been on city council ever since.
“It’s an expense that the city doesn’t need to take on,” she said. “We’re trying to save up money to put together a court, so we can actually enforce our laws,” she said.
Staples’ lone police officer can write tickets within the city limits, but without a court, the tickets can’t be enforced and the fines can’t be collected. In order to establish a court, the city would have to hire a public defender and pay to rent a location for the court to meet.
But residents such as Grumbles say the center is an important part of the community and its history and deserves to be restored. “The Civic Center is the only building owned by the City of Staples. Why would you want to tear it down?” Grumbles asked Wester at the meeting.
“I would be fine with meeting in the park,” Wester shot back, referring to holding city council meetings in the town park, which once served as a Confederate training camp.
Grumbles, who is Wester’s uncle, told the council that he had a termite inspector look at the building before the the meeting, and that the inspector deemed it termite-free. He also got a bid from a contractor that put the cost of leveling the building and raising it three feet — which would make it easier to work on the plumbing and AC — at $26,000.
The exchange between Wester and her uncle got so heated at the council meeting that the Mayor Daffern stepped in. “This is turning into a family feud,” Daffern said.
Next, Staples resident Chuck Blue Jr., 58, got up to speak. “It’s like there’s no direction. What do we want?” Blue said. “We’re going to have to have a building owned by the City of Staples. Why don’t we have a sub-committee formed by the city council to find out the true needs of the town and then reach out to a third party and have them write a scope [of work estimate]?”
After about an hour of debate and more testimony from residents, Mayor Daffern decided the solution to the Staples Center quandary would be to form a subcommittee to further study the issue and report to the Council.
Meeting attendees nodded in agreement, and council members agreed to create the new subcommittee. In doing so, they made the government of Staples just a little bit bigger, and they may have saved the Staples Center building.