Note: This article originally appeared in the August issue of Texas Town & City, published by the Texas Municipal League.
By Sam Hankins, City of Victoria communications specialist
PHOTO #1: From left, Joseph Vargas, Korey Parks and Jackie Yates, with the City of Victoria Community Appearance Division, add plants around the Street of Ten Friends historical marker sign in downtown Victoria on Nov. 13, 2020.
PHOTO #2: The newly renovated Street of Ten Friends sign is surrounded by flowerbeds planted by the City of Victoria Community Appearance Division.
PHOTO #3: The Welcome to Victoria sign on Highway 185 in Victoria features landscaping by the Community Appearance Division that includes native plants, pebbles and elevation using recycled tires.
PHOTO #4: The Welcome to Victoria sign on Moody Street is equipped with irrigation that allowed the Community Appearance Division to plant a range of colorful flowers.
PHOTO #5: The City of Victoria Community Appearance Division planted oleander bushes at the entrance of Water Pumping Plant No. 3 in 2020. The bushes were replaced with smaller flowering plants after Winter Storm Uri in 2021.
Environmental Services Director Darryl Lesak was tired of driving around Victoria and seeing trash everywhere.
“I’ve been working with trash for 33 years, so I notice it more,” Lesak said. “Trash was being left out on the streets, along fences, in ditches and parking lots. There was this culture of, ‘It’s not my problem. Someone else will take care of it.’”
But the residents of Victoria had shown that they had the ability to make a difference. After Hurricane Harvey devastated the region in 2017, residents pitched in to clear the debris that was left in the storm’s wake. And once the cleaning started, it just kept going.
“There were parts of the city that were clean for the first time, the cleanest they’d been in a while,” Lesak said. “People saw that Victoria was in a bad state, and they came together to improve the city’s appearance.”
City leadership knew that raising public awareness and contributing to beautification would go a long way toward building a new culture of community pride. In 2018, the City launched the Take Pride Victoria campaign, which combined public outreach with organized cleanups and enforcement of litter laws.
One of the program’s earliest efforts was a litter audit, in which City workers collected trash around Victoria to determine which areas had the greatest trash problems and why. They determined that most of the trash was not thrown out deliberately but was likely blown by the wind, either from overfilled trash cans or from uncovered trash loads being carried along Victoria’s many highways.
To combat the problem, the City reached out to local business owners to teach them about the importance of properly bagging trash and keeping dumpster lids closed. The City also worked to educate the public about covering trash loads with tarps. This was accompanied by coordination with law enforcement to ticket offenders, encouraging residents to “tarp it or ticket.”
The Take Pride Victoria campaign was successful in raising awareness and empowering the public to take action. But City leadership wanted a more long-term solution. They wanted to show the public that the City and the Victoria community were committed to building a more beautiful Victoria.
In 2019, this goal would lead the City to shift its efforts from a short-term campaign to a brand-new division of Environmental Services committed solely to beautification: the Community Appearance Division.
Building a dream team
At the time, the City’s community appearance efforts—right-of-way maintenance, tree trimming, weed control and so forth—were handled by staff with the City’s Parks & Recreation department. Landscaping was limited to certain City facilities, and litter control wasn’t as robust as it needed to be.
Jackie Yates was a landscape crew leader who’d held roles within Parks & Recreation for 17 years when the Community Appearance Division was created. She was transferred to the newly created division, and Lesak appointed her as the landscaping supervisor.
“Working for someone with Darryl’s knowledge and experience makes the job more fun,” Yates said. “I’ve been able to learn a lot through working hands-on in this new role.”
In addition to their years of professional experience, Lesak and Yates shared another trait that would prove to be a critical part of the City’s beautification efforts: They were both avid gardeners.
“This is a way for me to get to do what I love,” Lesak said. “I realized quickly that Jackie is also a plant person, so we’re able to bounce ideas off each other. It really helps because we’re able to choose plants that help Victoria stand out, things that you don’t see in every city.”
The Community Appearance Division is rounded out by a dedicated staff of four crewmembers who are cross-trained to take on a variety of duties. The creation of the new division has allowed the City to shift to a more proactive model of community enhancement, and it also gives staff more freedom to take on bigger projects.
“My staff are hardworking and committed to beautification, and they offer suggestions and ideas regularly,” Yates said. “We’re a small staff, but we’re flexible.”
Adding a splash of color
Since its inception more than a year ago, the Community Appearance Division has been responsible for a number of iconic beautification projects, including the refurbishing of the Welcome to Victoria signs, the flowerbeds at the historical Street of Ten Friends sign and a row of oleander bushes outside a highly visible water plant.
Water availability can factor into choices about which types of plants to use, Yates explained. For example, some of the Welcome to Victoria signs, located near the rural City limits, have limited access to water, so the team chooses hardy native plants that require little maintenance. However, when the time came to renovate the sign on Moody Street, Lesak and Yates discovered that the sign had its own water source, which gave them freedom to choose a wider variety of plants.
Residents have expressed appreciation for the color springing up around the Victoria community. Yates said that when her crew is working, they are often approached by residents thanking them for what they’re doing.
“When we were planting the flowerbeds on Loop 463, people kept honking their horns, waving or giving a thumbs-up,” Yates said. “Eventually we had to stop looking up every time, or we wouldn’t get anything done.”
Keeping Victoria beautiful together
Apart from the City-initiated beautification projects, one of the longstanding goals of the Community Appearance Division is to motivate residents to take an active role in cleaning up their neighborhoods.
This was accomplished in part through the revival of the local chapter of Keep Victoria Beautiful. Through a partnership with the previously defunct nonprofit, the City is able to provide funding and oversight, with Lesak serving as an ex officio board member.
Since reforming in 2020, Keep Victoria Beautiful has hosted five community cleanups in collaboration with the City. The group partners with student groups and community organizations to host cleanups, and the pandemic hasn’t stopped the public from coming to support the cleanups.
“People were masking up and coming out to make the community a better place,” Lesak said. “Interest in the cleanups is spreading; at the last couple of events, people have just been walking up, saying that they saw something on Facebook and wanted to help.”
And that interest spreads beyond cleaning up public places. Yates said that as more cleanups and landscaping efforts are taking place around Victoria, she’s noticed more residents stepping up to beautify their own yards.
“There are so many talented gardeners in this city,” Yates said. “When people maintain their yards, that motivates their neighbors to do the same. It creates a new expectation.”
Ready for whatever comes next
Whether they’re scheduling landscaping projects during a pandemic or replanting flowers after a historic freeze, the Community Appearance Division has shown its ability to persist through disasters.
“During the early days of COVID-19, we didn’t hire any temporary labor because we didn’t want to bring other people into our bubble,” Yates said. “We wouldn’t even put three people in a truck together to drive to a work site. It was a challenge, but we knew we had to keep fulfilling our duties to the public.”
Like the residents who came together to help Victoria recover after Hurricane Harvey, Lesak and Yates are committed to helping the community heal from recent crises and anything else the future may hold.
“People are still recovering from Harvey, and COVID-19 and the winter freeze will take years to get over as well,” Lesak said. “Regardless of what happens, we’ll keep pushing through because we want this to continue.”