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Sunday, March 7, 2021

Former Army Corps executive named new Panther Island leader

A senior executive recently retired from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was selected on Wednesday to become the new coordinator of the $1.17 billion Panther Island project.

The Trinity River Vision Authority board of directors unanimously approved hiring Mark Mazzanti as a contractor at a rate of $25,000 per month for up to two years.

However, the contract can be terminated at any time with 30 days notice, the board agreed

TRVA Board President G.K. Maenius said Mazzanti’s hiring is the board’s final move to implement all the recommendations of Dallas-based consulting firm, Riveron, which was contracted in to conduct a comprehensive review of the ambitious Panther Island project and its failure during the past few years to attract critical federal funds.

The TRVA board agreed in October to establish this position to handle the duties of analyzing risk assessment for the project and serve as coordinate the activities of the partner agencies, which include the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Tarrant Regional Water District, the parent agency of the TRVA.

The program coordinator will report directly to the TRVA board, which will continue as the coordinating organization for the project.

Riveron’s recommendations included a re-organization of the management structure of the TRVA as well as redefining the project’s focus solely on flood control and improving transparency and communication among the project partners.

As part of the re-organization, the position of TRVA executive director was eliminated and J.D. Granger, who held that position at a salary of more than $200,000 annually, was shifted into the ranks of the TRWD in a role focused on flood-control. His salary has reportedly been unaffected.

Critics have pointed to the optics of the project that combined flood control with economic development opportunities as a reason it has failed to attract money through the Corps budget. Critics have also pointed to nepotism within the project, which was being managed by the son of Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger, who has been the champion of the project and leader of efforts to secure federal dollars.

J.D. Granger’s former duties of project management and oversight of economic development and recreation activities on Panther Island have been reassigned.

“Mark will be able to sit in a room with us and have a conversation with us in an open and honest way,” said James Hill, a board member of the TRWD and the TRVA.

Mazzanti, a resident of Dallas, has more than 30 years of leadership experience working on large, multi-billion-dollar civil and municipal programs and projects., with a specialty in federal water-related projects.

He recently retired as director of programs for the Dallas-based Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, covering Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico. He managed inter-agency work on more than $6 billion in programs and led efforts for Congressional appropriation of more than $5 billion in disaster funding for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.

His previous special positions include serving at Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. where he prepared the budget for the agency’s Civil Works Program and in a management role for the Corps in Baghdad and Iraq, where he managed more than 3,000 projects worth about $10 billion for infrastructure development.

Maenius said that Mazzanti’s extensive experience with the Corps and large infrastructure projects should help position Panther Island to obtain the federal funds it needs for development.

In 2016, Corps authorized up to $526 million to be spent on the ambitious capital improvement project, which involves digging a 1.5-mile bypass channel on the Trinity River. Channelization would provide flood control protection and create an 800-acre island with waterfront economic development opportunities.

Mazzanti said the project has the advantage of strong support of leadership from the partner agencies but federal appropriations can be difficult to gauge since projects with higher public safety risks can take priority.

The local partners have already spent about $326 million on Panther Island, including a $200 million interest-free loan from the TRWD.

The agreement to hire Mazzanti comes as the project is stalling because local funds are dwindling.

Officials have requested an appropriation of federal funds of $36.7 million in 2020 and another $38.7 million in 2021 would keep the project on track for completion in 2028.

But as they wait to learn whether the federal money is forthcoming in 2020, a difference of opinion has developed over the next steps, should the funds not be appropriated.

TRWD officials are eager to tap $250 million in bond funds approved by district voters in 2018. The caveat to that plan is that its requires the City Council’s to extend the term of tax-increment finance (TIF) district that produces revenue for Panther Island from 40 to 50 years.

Without the extension, the TIF could not generate enough money to repay the bond debt, according to TRWD and TRVA Chief Financial Officer Sandy Newby.

But David Cooke, a TRVA board member and city manager of Fort Worth, has been reluctant to recommend that the City Council extend the TIF extension because there is no guarantee that the federal money ever will be appropriated.

Yet, if the bond money is held up because the TIF isn’t extended, work cannot proceed on relocating and upgrading utilities in the Panther Island development zone. About $80 million worth of utility work is pending.

The utilities are critical to generate commercial and residential development, which will support the TIF and repay the debt. Relocation of utilities is also to making the channel area “shovel ready” for the Corps to begin digging should federal funds become available, TRWD officials said.

Uncertainty continues over whether the project would receive an amount closer to $526 million from the federal government or about $250 million to cover just the cost of flood control protection.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Republican Congressman Roger Williams of District 25,have lobbied federal officials received a vague commitment of $250 million from Trump Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to go strictly toward flood control.

TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver said Mazzanti’s will be paid from funds the TRWD received from the 2019 TIF disbursement as debt repayment.

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