Federal funds for the $1.17 billion Panther Island project may have inched closer to reality following a high-powered meeting at the White House last week.
Mayor Betsy Price and U.S. Rep Roger Williams, whose District 25 stretches from the southern Fort Worth area to Austin, met with President Trump’s acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney last week to discuss obstacles that have prevented Panther Island from receiving federal funds, Price said Sunday.
Although it is U.S. Rep. Kay Granger of Fort Worth who has been the champion of Panther Island, Price said Williams arranged the meeting with Mulvaney.
“Kay was aware of it, but she was not involved,” Price said.
The outcome of the meeting with Mulvaney, who is also director of the Office of Management and Budget, was a clearer path for the Fort Worth project to receive a maximum of $250 million to fund flood control improvements only.
“We feel this is a step in the right direction,” Price said. “We don’t have a definite schedule as to when and how we will receive the money but we at least we know how much it could be.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers green-lighted the project and authorized it for funding up to $526 million.
But last fall, when the project was again overlooked for a federal appropriation from Congress, Price met with Trump Administration officials who told her the project had been overlooked because it was deemed a flood control and economic development endeavor.
Corps dollars are not to be spent on economic development ventures.
Concerned that the project could be in jeopardy, Price called for a comprehensive review to determine whether changes were needed to better position Panther Island for federal funding.
The review was recently completed by the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron. The report, which was delivered July 10, was initially withheld from the public but has since been released.
The consulting firm is still expected to make an official presentation and answer questions.
Panther Island is a joint endeavor among several government agencies, including the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District. Management of the project is under the direction of the Trinity River Vision Authority, a subsidiary of the water district.
The TRVA commissioned the comprehensive review.
The local partners have already spent about $324 million on the project. The project has received about $65 million for various parts of the project, including three bridges that will connect Panther Island to adjacent areas of the city.
As envisioned, the Corps will dig a 1.5-mile bypass channel and reroute the Trinity River north of the Tarrant County Courthouse. That channel would add flood control protection as well as carve out an 800-acre center island, which would create waterfront economic development opportunities, including a San Antonio-style Riverwalk.
Price said that if the $250 million is secured, some type of “public-private partnership” would need to be established to manage the economic development aspects of the project. The $250 million would cover the cost of the channel and other flood control-related costs.
During her meeting with Mulvaney, Trump briefly stopped in, Price said.
The comprehensive review suggests that the city of Fort Worth create a separate nonprofit organization to handle economic development, including building development.
Price said she wasn’t ready to comment on any aspect of the Riveron report until the consultants officially present their findings.
Presentations of the report are expected in August for the TRVA board and the City Council, she said.
TRWD Executive Director Jim Oliver has said he is opposed to a recommendation in the report that the functions of TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger be split apart. It recommends that Granger continue to manage flood control improvements but that real estate development be spun off into a nonprofit organization.
“If we spinoff the real estate, it should be our responsibility,” Oliver said in an impromptu news conference after the TRWD meeting last week. “This is water district land and if anyone should set up a 501c3 (nonprofit), it should be us.”
Oliver had not responded to a request for comment on Sunday.
The Riveron report is critical of TRVA management of the Panther Island project, citing “insufficient operational oversight and transparency” and “unclear financial and management reporting.”
Other key findings include unclear projections of revenue and expenditures as well as inconsistent views on goals and objectives and unclear understanding of roles and mission.
The report cites “lack of robust policies, procedures and transparency in TRVA operations, specifically with respect to project and change management, hiring, promotion, performance management, decisioning, roles and responsibilities.”
Other problems mentioned: “complicated and opaque governance, project management, organizational and reporting structure between and within the TRWD and TRVA, and among project participants.”