LINDALE - When educator Stan Surratt considered taking a job to lead the Lindale Independent School District a decade ago, things looked a little different than they do today.
There were far fewer students, for one, and the district was cash-strapped to cover the bills and ease overcrowding.
But Surratt, who had already helped a small Van Zandt County school district dig out of a devastating budget deficit, figured he was up to the challenge.
He accepted the role of Lindale ISD superintendent, rolled up his sleeves and started working alongside a tireless community and staff to iron out the issues.
The collective efforts paid off and today the district is recognized as among the educational elites in the state.
Surratt’s 5A school district is among the chief reasons people said they want to move to Lindale.
He and others marvel at the growing student headcount and at how fast the town is expanding, in all directions.
“When I came here, the district was a good size, about six times larger than the one where I had been,” he said. “There were 3,200 kids 10 years ago … there are 4,054 now. We anticipate, in the next 10 years, adding another 1,000.”
It wasn’t so many years ago Lindale was like so many sleepy towns in East Texas, offering quiet country living and a nice place to raise a family.
For locals, there was also a frustrating flip side to the peaceful, laid back existence: many of its residents were spending time and money in Tyler - working, shopping and dining out.
As Lindale’s tax dollars left town by way of U.S. Highway 69, its downtown struggled with empty storefronts, vacant industrial buildings and a lack of identity.
Local leaders knew that to retain the lifestyle everyone cherished, the town had to change.
But getting outside businesses to take serious note of its assets was a challenge.
Tyler, after all, was considerably larger ‑ with plenty of retail, three colleges and a booming medical district - and it was sitting just across the interstate.
Developer Chad Franke was among those who paused a few years ago to look a little deeper at Tyler’s small town neighbor.
He found Lindale, with an estimated population of 5,323, had many positives - quality schools, open space and location, location, location.
It is located on two major roadways, U.S. Highway 69 and Interstate 20, and was within driving distance to larger cities.
“There were way more people here than people were seeing,” Franke said, citing 27,000 in the postal count and 48,000 in its trade area.
From a bird’s eye view, the numbers were even more impressive, he said - at least 362,000 people within a 30-mile radius.
But the big clincher was something entirely unique to Lindale: the Miranda Lambert factor.
Fans from around the world routinely travel to Lindale to visit and browse the streets where the country music superstar grew up.
She lives elsewhere today, but her heart remains tied to Lindale.
In the developer’s eyes, the friendly East Texas town appeared to be a shining star of opportunity, but would people drive to the country to experience dining and entertainment?
“Absolutely,” Franke said, during a recent interview. “We knew we had a special opportunity … there was a strong foundation here on which to build.”
Tye Phelps, an experienced businessman with a string of development successes, including Plano’s popular Love & War in Texas, also saw unique opportunities in Lindale.
His ties to the Lambert family go back years, when the superstar was just a girl with a big dream and talent to match it.
In those days, Phelps supplied a family-friendly stage for the singer with the sassy voice.
As their daughter’s stardom grew, Rick and Bev Lambert started wishing Lindale had an entertainment venue large enough for her to perform at home for special occasions.
The Lamberts were loyal to downtown and its charms, so they started brainstorming with Phelps about possibly opening a second Love & War location in East Texas.
Their talks unfolded about the same time Franke and his business partners were weighing the potential for a big project in the area.
It seems team Franke was eyeing an area closer to Interstate 20 when one of Lindale’s city councilmen, Jeff Daugherty, now the mayor, pointed them north, toward downtown, where an old fruit cannery was sitting idle and unused.
The shabby property was owned by the city, which purchased it in 2005 for $200,000.
Franke was intrigued with the possibilities and purchased the property for about $945,000, records show.
His plans for downtown soon expanded to include the Lamberts and Phelps, who also wanted something special in the area.
Lindale city leaders offered support to the redevelopment efforts through a special taxing zone, and soon, dirt started to fly.
Today, the visionaries’ new $15 million project, The Cannery, is helping shape the face of Lindale.
It features a new home for the Lamberts’ Pink Pistol boutique and Red 55 Winery, which moved from its original location at U.S. 69 and SH 16 to help anchor the project.
There’s also a second location for Phelps’ rustic Love and War in Texas, complete with a stage, family seating and unique, full course menu.
Across the way sits Picker’s Pavillion, a place for concerts and entertainment, surrounded by plenty of open space for relaxing.
TJC ON BOARD
Tyler Junior College is also joining in the eclectic mix at The Cannery, creating a new campus which focuses primarily on nursing and a veterinary assistant program, college President Dr. Mike Metke said.
TJC North, as it will be called, will initially take up about 8,500 square feet of space at one end of the development, but student demand could push the school to one day expand.
“There’s just a positive energy and enthusiasm and a lot of support here,” Metke said, explaining the school’s move to start a new TJC North campus.
The new campus is nearing completion. Crews are working on finishing touches, such as floors and paint, so school officials can hold a big reveal in the coming weeks.
Metke said TJC established a presence in Lindale about 10 years ago on the opposite side of town and it was positively received, adding, “This is taking it to a new level.”
TJC Provost and Vice President Juan E. Mejia said Lindale was a great choice for program expansions because of both The Cannery and quality local schools.
“We see the vision of this location,” he said, noting students from Lindale, as well as outlying towns, such as Van, Mineola and Quitman, can attend classes closer to home for less money than at larger institutions.
Metke expects a surge in enrollment in the coming months as word spreads Lindale offers an attractive, affordable option for higher education.
He cites a wealth of unique resources in the general area for the vet tech program: Caldwell Zoo, Miranda Lambert’s MuttNation and Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, to name a few.
“We want Lindale to be a college town,” Metke said. “We have a really nice partnership here.”
City officials said growing excitement downtown seems to be helping inspire other development, including restaurants, businesses and recreational opportunities.
The city recently welcomed a Starbucks and The Catch, a seafood restaurant.
Vacant buildings in the downtown are filling up, and more people are making it a point to visit, said Seong MacLaren, director of Downtown Development and Tourism.
“It’s been really amazing,” she said. “We are constantly receiving phone calls from people wanting space.”
Around The Cannery, there are hopes of one day adding loft apartments, parking space and entertainment settings.
Officials predict the new Tyler-to-Lindale route of Texas State Highway Loop 49 Toll Road will improve connectivity between the two cities, and lure more people and businesses to town.
Daugherty, the mayor, sees many positives in the Loop 49 project and predicts the town will capitalize on the enhanced traffic flow.
“We want people to get on the loop and come enjoy,” he said. “There are lots of feelings about 49. … I think it’s going to recapture traffic that’s all around us.”
To help move traffic, new access roads are planned for the east and west sides of I-20, combined with intersection improvements at US 69.
A significant project in the works for that general area is a sprawling, multi-field soccer complex to be located off I-20, north of the Lindale Industrial Park.
The complex is said to feature at least eight fields, plus practice space, offices and guest conveniences, records show.
Officials expect a flurry of new development along the interstate in the coming years, pointing out the need for more hotels to accommodate the activities.
The town’s new city manager, Carolyn Caldwell, is a veteran city staffer, who worked years in finance and administration before taking on her current role.
She said city leaders started work long ago to address the less glamorous side of development: infrastructure.
“We have a long-serving council,” she said. “There’s been a lot of background work involved.”
Plans are in the works to address water and sewer needs, and the city is mulling possible annexation opportunities to acquire additional land.
Newcomer Susan Gill, president and general manager of Lindale Economic Development Corporation, is on the front lines of many of the projects unfolding around town.
She spent years working to benefit Longview before coming to Lindale about a year ago.
The timing of her transition seems to be helpful.
“Our office has over 50 active projects right now,” Ms. Gill said. “That’s retail, restaurants … but nothing happens overnight. It takes years of planning and marketing.”
Lease space is at a premium right now, she said, as there are limited vacancies and rental spaces.
Lindale’s mayor seems fine with some space limitations, noting, the desire is not to quickly fill every inch of territory with cookie cutter development, missing the mark on what makes Lindale unique.
“We want to be special,” Daugherty said.
Shelbie Glover is Lindale’s first full-time director of the Chamber of Commerce.
When she arrived on the job 10 years ago, the chamber had 250 members; the goal for this year is 650.
Her phone rings daily with inquires from businesses wanting to set up shop and people curious about why Lindale is becoming a magnet for development.
“We have the best school district in the state,” she said, citing her typical responses. “We have a smaller location and a laid-back lifestyle here.”
Another big plus for Lindale, she said, is its neighbor to the west, Hideaway, a gated golf community of about 4,500 people, mostly retirees.
Ms. Glover predicts TJC’s presence downtown will create a financial ripple effect for the entire town, citing student demand for certain conveniences, namely food and entertainment.
“There’s a lot of value in the student population,” she said. “It’s going to be nice to have them here.”
THE MIRANDA FACTOR
As much as he cares for the Lambert family, Phelps admits he thought long and hard before bringing his Love & War in Texas to Lindale.
“I’m the outsider coming in,” he said “I had to be convinced, I had to do research … it’s (potential) not something you can see on the outside.”
He is among those who believe Lindale will one day rival the state’s most popular and iconic entertainment destinations, only without the traffic congestion, noise pollution and the craziness of a large city.
It is, after all, Miranda’s hometown.
“This will be the No. 1 music venue in Texas,” Phelps said.
Cannery developer Franke agreed, adding, “We want this to be event central. We’ll kill it out here.”
The Lamberts point to their daughter’s success in Tishomingo, Okla., as testament to what Lindale’s downtown can become.
She moved to the small Oklahoma town a few ago after marrying singer Blake Shelton and opened a small boutique, the Pink Pistol, to help revive the area.
A wave of redevelopment followed and when the marriage ended, Miranda Lambert refocused and asked her mother if something similar could happen in Lindale’s downtown.
When the Texas version of her boutique ultimately opened its doors, scores of shoppers showed up and business continues to boom in its new Cannery location.
Today, people come from all over the world to visit the Pink Pistol, said Bev Lambert, citing conversations with customers and the store guest ledger.
“This is the perfect story of what happens when people with vision work together,” she said.
The singer’s father said he likes the development because it fulfills his daughter’s desire to renew downtown while still enjoying things that make it home, such as burgers at nearby Petty’s Steak & Catfish.
“I, for one, get so excited about all of this,” Rick Lambert said. “This is her hometown. She’s put Lindale out there so many times … this is like saying thank you.”
Lindale ISD’s Surratt is also pleased - his district benefits from the town’s boom in popularity.
If his projections of 1,000 more students hold true, he’ll need two more campuses and extra staffing to meet newcomer needs, but he’s confident the community will support its schools.
A redo of the district’s master facility plan is high on the to-do list, he said, as is creating extra space for ninth-graders, adding campuses and sprucing up existing facilities.
“We bought 109 acres already,” Surratt said. “That’s actually enough to hold three campuses … we’re staying on top of our facilities and staging at the proper time.
I’m just really proud of our district. Everybody works hard to make it a success.”
Editor’s Note: Senior Editor Roy Maynard contributed to this report.
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