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The Smith County Commissioners Court meets on Tuesday Feb. 5, 2019. Pictured from left: Commissioner Jeff Warr, Commissioner Terry Phillips, Judge Nathaniel Moran, Commissioner Cary Nix and Commissioner JoAnn Hampton. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph)

Smith County officials pushed back on criticism from a powerful political action committee on Tuesday, defending a federal grant application that seeks to revitalize downtown Tyler.

Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran told the Commissioners Court that he wrote a letter of support for the city of Tyler’s grant application this year, just as he did last year, and did not bind the county to spending money as part of the application.

The comments come in response to JoAnn Fleming, the executive director of Grassroots America-We The People political action committee. Fleming questioned the grant application at a Commissioners Court meeting last week.

The application is for a federal Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation. The city of Tyler applied unsuccessfully in 2018 and has reapplied in 2019 with support from the county.

The city proposed both years to improve streetscaping on South Broadway Avenue between Front Street and Erwin Street in a way that narrows the drivable road and increases its attractiveness to pedestrians.

The county’s major portions in the 2019 grant are building a 750-car parking garage, a renovation of the downtown square and surrounding streets, and building a trailhead adjacent to the downtown square.

Moran told the Commissioners Court that he has been asked about collaborating with the city of Tyler since he took office in 2016. He said this is an example of working with the city.

“I am fully committed to supporting the city of Tyler’s revitalization efforts downtown and for their economic development efforts they’ve had on the books for well over a decade … a number of projects through the Tyler First program,” Moran said.

Moran said he got a request in June to send a letter of support on behalf of the city’s grant. He said there was not enough time prior to the application deadline to bring the issue before the Commissioners Court, but it was the city’s application anyway.

“Kind of at the last minute there was an add-on that related to the county that had to do with the potential to build a parking structure here, which, again, is something that is not a surprise at all to anybody,” Moran said.

He said a study the Commissioners Court received in 1999 mentioned the need for a parking garage, and so did a 2007 study. He said people who park in juror parking for jury duty probably would agree there is a need.

“All of you have been around this court long enough to know anyway, there’s really two steps to the grant process,” Moran said. “There’s grant submission and there’s grant acceptance. Grant submission even if done by this body does not mean that there’s anything that’s binding that’s happened.”

Commissioner Terry Phillips told Moran that he is free to take whatever position he wants, but that doesn’t mean Phillips supports it.

“The only thing that I’ve seen, when I read that grant said the county had committed … and that is not true in that grant. I don’t know how it got there. That’s not on us.”

Moran responded: “Well, I’m glad we could clear that up today.”

Commissioner Jeff Warr criticized people who get in the way of projects without offering alternatives. He pointed to decades-old opposition to the outer loop, now called Toll 49, among other projects.

“There’s a difference between coming up with an opposition plan, or just being a critic of it,” Warr said. He then read a portion of a speech by President Theodore Roosevelt known as “the man in the arena” that commends taking risks and condemns critics.

“Here in elected office, you get critics all the time for things that they know very little about, but I want to thank you for bringing this forward and clearing the air,” Warr said.

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Government Reporter

Erin came to Tyler from Vermont, where she worked for VTDigger.org and previously the Rutland Herald. She received her B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school.

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