The Hipster Set Loves Denton City Councilman Kevin Roden. And He Loves Them Right Back.
By H. Drew Blackburn on Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at 11:51 AM
It's early March, and Oak Street Drafthouse -- an old, off-white home near Denton's Square that's been updated and converted into a craft beer-swillers' haven -- is filled to the brim.
This is, perhaps, to be expected. Since the bar opened its doors last spring, this scene has become an all-too-familiar one in this college town. But today the drinking has something of a purpose. Oak Street is hosting a party to help celebrate the launch of Armadillo Ale Works, Denton's first craft brewery.
Officially, the party kicked off at 5 p.m. But only minutes after the clock turned, hundreds of students and young professionals were already filling the backyard patio to take part in the congregation.
Donning brown jeans, gray New Balance sneakers and a blue hoodie zipped over a button-up shirt, Denton city councilman Kevin Roden looks very much like just another member of the crowd as he mills about it, messing around with his constituents. He smiles ear to ear as he shakes hands with and pats the back of nearly everyone he passes.
In another town, this would be Roden's "kissing babies" moment. Here, though, sipping beers suffices. And, truth be told, there's no need for much fanfare.
Most Dentonites at least know of Roden by now. In May, he kicked off his second term on the city council in service of Denton's District 1 -- the zone that includes Denton's oh-so-treasured Square. This second time through, he ran unopposed.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Roden takes a brief moment during this Oak Street celebration to snatch the spotlight. As the sky slowly darkens its shade of blue and the sun begins its retreat into the night, the councilman climbs atop on a worn, round wooden table and calls for the crowd's attention. He then launches into a speech about his love for Denton's laissez faire creative spirit.
"Nothing pleases me more than to see the beer culture that's been created in Denton," he says, praising the Denton-dwelling bar owners, brewers and beer-drinkers on hand.
This is a man that certainly knows his audience --- perhaps because he is of this audience. Roden is perhaps best described Denton's hipster politician, which is to say that he just might be perfect fit for office in this town -- or this very specific portion of this otherwise conservative town.
It's why he's become such a revered figure here. It's also why so many think that one day -- and more likely sooner, rather than later -- he could become this town's mayor.
Finally, with his impromptu stump speech coming to a close, Roden raises a glass -- one filled with roasted malts, oats and maple syrup -- to the sky.
"Denton," he says, "this Quakertown Stout is for you!"
The yard reverberates with applause. More than a few in attendance let loose an approving "Wooooo!"
To be fair, these people have been guzzling Quakertown Stouts for a couple of hours by this point. And, considering the brew's 9.22 alcohol by volume percentage -- more than double that of a Bud Light -- they are, by most any estimation, quite drunk.
But, they're also really loving this moment.
* * * * *
Like so many before him, Roden first came to Denton because of his love of music.
"I wanted to be a rock star," he wistfully says now of his decision to enroll in the University of North Texas's vaunted jazz program in 1992.
A more inborn trait followed Roden to town, too. In his hometown of North Canton, Ohio, Roden's father served as the school superintendent. His mother, meanwhile, worked as an emergency room nurse. Clearly, the fact that each of his parents worked in the public sector no doubt shaped Roden's eventual career choices.
When Roden began to tire of the more academic side of his music studies -- constantly studying modes and scales took much of the life out of the artform he still loves so dearly -- Roden switched majors as a sophomore, choosing instead to study philosophy.
Perhaps ironically, it was academia that eventually would keep Roden in Denton. In the spring of 1997, he was hired as a resident assistant for the Texas Academy of Math and Science students at UNT. Since 2000, he's served as the assistant director of student life at the school.
"For a long time, I really, really didn't like Texas in general and I certainly didn't like Denton," Roden says as he elongates and enunciates each "really" to hammer home his point.
His work at UNT would eventually win him over. Through TAMS, Roden guides high school-aged students through the college grind, helping them achieve both in and outside of school thanks to a rigorous program filled with extracurricular activities, volunteer work and intellectual thought. His efforts here have proven successful, too: Last year, former TAMS student Monica Thieu won $100,000 as a contestant on Jeopardy. These days, Thieu attends Stanford University.
"It's almost like a farm school for Ivy League kids," Roden says of the TAMS program. "It's an incredibly rewarding job because you're getting a chance to influence kids before they become the movers and shakers of their generation."
Now, through his role on the Denton city council, Roden aims to bring that same influence to the city as a whole.
Says Roden: "It's surprising, now, to see how much of an advocate and cheerleader I am for the city."
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Politically, Roden first began gaining traction in Denton back in the early aughts, through the launch of his still-recurring series of political and social discussions, Drink & Think. The concept: On a semi-regular basis, Roden and his wife Emily invite the public into their home to discuss various city-related topics (read: think) and the general flow of conversation is lubricated by alcohol (read: drink).
The crazy idea behind these affairs: The Rodens simply thought that Dentonites wanted discussions like these.
"[Dentonites] just don't have any real outlet for this besides some B.S. discussion they get in with someone late at night at a bar or something," Roden says. "But they all want to [discuss these things]. We found out that was true."
His Drink & Think get-togethers would prove to be the catalyst for Roden's popularity in the Denton political landscape. These free-wheeling meetings, Roden says, have seen hundreds of people at a time come through his home. Since their inception nearly a decade ago, he estimates that thousands have collectively taken part in these talks.
Nowadays, the Drink & Think concept has taken on a life all its own, even spawning a spinoff called Dessert & Discourse, which is kind of like a cute Teen Nick version of the event for his TAMS students. In 2011, meanwhile, just before Roden's first run for political office, Drink & Think became a part of the town's annual 35 Denton music festival, further cementing Roden's place as a fixture within Denton's hispterati.
But Roden says he sees more than good times in Denton's ever-popular music scene. He sees potential economic growth, too.
"The number one unique asset we have in Denton is a highly educated, creative workforce that we need to figure out how to leverage," Roden says. "I want to keep our best and brightest here."
* * * * *
At this past year's 35 Denton, Roden moderated a panel on the so-called "creative class" of Denton. Called "Denton: A City, A College, and A Creative Class," the panel featured, among others, Roden's fellow UNT employee, Michael Seman.
Seman, who works as a research associate at the university's Center for Economic Research and Development, is a devout advocate of the "creative class" idea developed by urban geographer and current senior editor of The Atlantic, Richard Florida.
"It basically deals with the creation of information and the development of creative ideas," explains Seman, who, in addition to contributing to The Atlantic himself, also serves as the vocalist and guitarist for the Denton-based band Shiny Around The Edges.
The theory, Seman explains, is that, by focusing on cultivating an environment that welcomes "creative types" (a tag that can apply to everything from information tech workers and physicians to painters and musicians), cities open themselves up to economic growth.
Denton certainly fits the classic creative class bill. Between the University of North Texas and Texas Woman's University, some 40,000 potential creatives fill this town each year.
One problem: After these students graduate, there's not much employment in place to keep these bright young minds around.
Still, by recognizing what Denton already has and by fostering growth in these areas by working with both the local universities and the local government, Roden believes that the creative class can, in fact, thrive in Denton. The goal, he says, is to cultivate an environment that attracts the types of businesses that employ these people -- or better yet, one in which these kinds of businesses can be launched outright.
Seman agrees that this is the best course of action for the city's economic growth, noting that a decent music scene, which Denton has long been recognized as having, certainly helps in the matter.
"[A strong music scene] often times works as an amenity to attract other creative people," Seman says. "It's not only going to attract musicians, but you've got to remember that 90 percent of musicians are also graphic designers, teachers or artists in other mediums -- lawyers, IT people. So music scenes are a great way to foster a creative class, just by attracting people."
But even Florida himself has recently started questioning this line of thought. In an essay published in January, Florida researched wages and their correlation with housing costs in urban areas and found that, "on close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers." In other words: Once the bills come in the mail and the wages get garnished, the starving artist still very much exists, even in the towns where they're supposed to thrive.
Nonetheless, Roden is pushing forward with his belief that focusing on creativity is just what the doctor prescribed for his adopted city. He envisions a future in which Denton cultivates a Silicon Valley-like environment for start-ups. And he hopes to accomplish this by turning Denton's downtown district -- the same district he represents on the city council -- into an innovation hub by highlighting the businesses already doing their part in fostering this environment.
"[We have to] market them and show that this is a place where you want to do business," he says, citing Downtown Denton-based brand development company Swash Labs as a prime example of a Denton business doing things right.
It's of little surprise, then, that the business owners in Roden's district view the councilman as something of a godsend.
"With Kevin, I know I have someone who will listen," says Swash Labs CEO Josh Berthume, who too sat in on that 35 Denton panel with Roden and Seman. "That doesn't seem like it would be a big deal, but in politics, it is... This is an enormous asset to me as both a citizen and a business owner. His aggressive pursuit of the development of Denton's creative economy required him to go out on a limb and be mindful of something that was underway but could benefit from recognition and support. It doesn't take much, but sometimes encouragement is hard to come by. He puts us together and points out resources we might have otherwise missed as entrepreneurs."
* * * * *
The major downside to being a gregarious, well-liked politician is that folks can be quick to paint you as some sort of local Superman. But not even Superman is just Superman. He's Clark Kent, too. Has to be.
On April 15, Dentonites were none-too-pleased to catch wind of a Subway set to open up shop on Denton's Square. Some residents even took to Reddit to express their displeasure with the matter. Others blamed Roden for allowing the chain to come into town on his watch.
The reason for their outrage: The Square is to Dentonites as The Vatican is to Catholics. In their eyes, a Subway (read: a corporate giant) infringing on such sacred ground seems nothing short of sacrilegious.
"I'm not a fan of having a place like Subway set up on the square," Roden says. "I think what people love about the Square is that it offers a unique sense of place. Denton is a retreat from places like Frisco or Plano where you feel like, 'Wow, I'm in town No. 32 America.' So I get how people are mad about that."
Even so, Roden posted a note to his website to temper people's expectations about the then-impending Subway opening. His argument: The same free enterprise that brings national corporations like Subway to the Square is the very same thing that allows local entities such as Oak Street Drafthouse and Mad World Records to open in the area.
That's another problem Roden faces, of course: Much as so many of Roden's biggest supporters might like to believe otherwise, utilizing the creative class for economic growth is but one of the many issues the Denton is currently facing.
"Within an earshot of downtown," Roden says, "you have some of the highest poverty in the city of Denton."
It's a legitimate concern. Lost amid the clamor of Denton's sometimes sensationalist hometown pride -- the bulk of which centers around the fact that it's the best small town in the country and that it's a neat little music hub, too -- is Roden's own constituency's lack of understanding about what life can be like literally right on the other side of the train tracks that run through town.
On that side of the tracks, there are major concerns, Roden says, many of which center around a very real issue of poverty. Upwards of 50 percent of the students in Denton Independent School District are on free or reduced lunch, Roden says. Payday lending is a serious problem too, he says.
"There are a lot of poor people in the city," Roden says. "And that means, while there's certain sectors that are rising in our economy, there's a lot of sectors of people that aren't. To me, being able to create an economic situation where there's prosperity -- everyone has to benefit from that, not just certain people. A lot of people talk about economic development. It can't be just, 'How do these rich people get richer?' To me, it's, 'How does the whole community get healthier, economically?'"
* * * * *
Perhaps the toughest thing about governing a city that sees a vast changeover in its population from year to year-- thanks to its universities-- is developing a sustainable, caring citizenry, especially if the crowds that are engaged have little reason to stay in town after graduation.
Seemingly most of Roden's efforts in the public eye are aimed at changing this very fact. The Drink & Think events he hosts, the similarly inclined "creative mixers" he so often attends, his appearance at events like Armadillo Ale Works launch party where he shines so bright -- all of it.
But what will actually happen if this base is, in fact, built?
Where will Roden be then? Will Roden, this crowd's white knight, still be around to lead this growing movement? Could he possibly, maybe, even be their mayor?
It's possible he could consider such a move, Roden says, while acknowledging that his young family -- which includes a five-year-old daughter, a two-year-old son and a third child due this month -- could perhaps prevent him from pursuing a political career beyond a third, and term-limited final, stretch as on the city council.
"As much as I love it, I also am very committed to my family," Roden says. "If I have the time, I would be honored to have the opportunity to be mayor at some point."
That's a question, he says, for a later date. One that can be answered, perhaps, in the middle of a brighter Denton future.
Still, people want to know his answer. Roden, however, won't budge.
But he does make one concession.
"There's only so much power I have on city council to affect change," he says, smiling.
All photos by Nicole Arnold.