Sometime in the next three weeks, luminaries from around the Texoma region will gather on a nascent construction site, a few hundred feet from speeding cars and trucks heading this way or that at the State Highway 691-U.S.Highway 75 interchange. Speeches will be made. Gold-plated shovels that have never seen a day of dirt in their lives will be posed-with, leaned-on, photographed.
But at this particular groundbreaking, something will be missing. Or rather, someone.
His name is Scott Smathers, and unless you’ve started a business in Denison in the last decade, you might not know who he is, or that his last day with the Denison Development Alliance will be Monday. But even though he won’t be in attendance when the city breaks ground on the $19 million Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center, the facility will be, in large part, the residue of Smathers’ design.
“When you do an analysis of this community and you try to get an understanding of how you’re going to create a tax base with retail, there’s only one logical answer, and that’s Highway 691 and 75,” said DDA President Tony Kaai. “But some people don’t remember, that was just a wooded tract of land when Scott came here.”
When Scott Smathers came to Denison, it was the summer of 2003. He had been lured away from a Tulsa-based data-mining operation by Kaai, who at the time, was more-or-less a one-man-show at the DDA.
“Economic developers didn’t do retail at that time,” said Kaai. “But things change. There was this whole new thing about retailers acting like manufacturers and shopping incentives just like industry had been doing forever. So then there’s a whole new side of economic development, and that’s retail and service recruitment.”
Working with the Denison City Council, Kaai hired a consultant who recommended bringing someone on to the staff full-time to focus on retail. Remembering a transaction with Smathers from years earlier that had impressed him, Kaai called him up.
“It was immediately a natural fit,” recalled Kaai. “He was perfect from Day 1, really.” Smathers joined DDA as vice president of business development.
The two men worked over the next few months to identify the potential retail sites in town, focusing their efforts on the intersection of the two highways south of Denison.
“We got an inquiry from Cigna. They wanted to build a new facility. So they talked to all the towns in the region and said, ‘This is what we want,’” said Kaai. “I was working on several industrial things, so that became Scott’s first deal; the Cigna deal.”
Smathers deflects credit for the $15 million, 500-job project. “It’s a falsehood to say ‘This was a Scott Smathers project.’ Tony worked on it a lot, you had the mayor involved, you had the city manager involved, we had an army, really.”
Smathers and Kaai worked to secure 15-acres at the site, with the idea that Cigna would get the ball rolling on development at the corner. The Development Alliance put together a package of infrastructure improvements worth nearly $1 million that, together with the acreage, was enough to land the insurer.
“We got water and sewer run to the location and looped; we had to run water down 75 and the loop it under 75. The advantage of the Cigna deal was it also then provided a lot of infrastructure from a community point of view. It set that whole corner up,” recalls Smathers.
From there, development took off quickly, said Kaai. The $150 million Texoma Medical Center came next. “That site was fully lit-up, so, ‘Bingo.’ You’ve got the biggest economic engine in Denison’s history sitting there on that corner with that medical complex.”
It was a few years into his tenure with the Denison Development Alliance, and Scott Smathers was on a roll. According to Mayor Jared Johnson, Smathers worked over the following years to help secure deals with Caterpillar, Kwikset and National Government Services — among dozens of other, smaller projects — bringing thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in business investment into the community.
“He’s been very instrumental in (those projects),” the Mayor said while presenting a proclamation to Smathers at a recent City Council meeting. “But most importantly, he’s been good for Denison. He’s a good part of the team, and that’s why people always went to him.”
According to Kaai, the continued expansion of the community tax base through ongoing and future development at the 691/75 corner will be Smathers’ gift that keeps on giving.
“These deals take daily attention for months, sometimes years,” Kaai stressed. Referencing the corner, he said, “That’s 10 years worth of work to get that where it is.”
For Smathers, who will start a new position in Topeka, Kan. next month, he leaves Denison a richer and more developed city than when he found it a decade ago, according to city officials. But for him, the benefits have been mutual.
“It’s been a tremendous place to raise my son; the people have just been fabulous,” he said. “Denison is very fortunate to have leaders in the community that are all about what’s best for Denison, not what’s in it for them. When you have a city working that way — that is what gives Denison the edge.”
It’s an edge that will be on stark display some day in the recent future, as Johnson and others will pick up their gold shovels and “break-ground” at the Hilton site that was, a decade prior, covered with heavy vegetation.
According to the Mayor’s proclamation, “It will be the anchor for the future retail development of the city.”
And they’ll have Scott Smathers to thank for it.