Trinity River Vision seeks solutions as project funds dwindle

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With less than $74,000 left in Panther Island coffers,  Trinity River Vision Authority officials are scrambling for solutions to pay the bills and keep the $1.17 billion flood control/economic development project afloat beyond the end of the month.

“As of Nov. 30, we have $73,900 left of the $200 million loan” (from the Tarrant Regional Water District), said Sandy Newby, chief financial officer of the TRWD and its subsidiary, the TRVA. “That’s not a lot of money.”

At Wednesday’s meeting of the TRVA board, officials came up with a short-term solution of asking the TRWD board to quickly authorize some limited funding from its 2019 payment from city of Fort Worth’s tax-increment finance district (TIF), the local funding mechanism for Panther Island.

An infusion of at least $74,000 is needed to pay January bills of rent at the TRVA’s downtown Fort Worth office and payments to contractors who schedule work for the project.

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The water district recently received about $5 million from the TIF, which was put aside to repay debt connected to a pending $250 million bond issue. In 2018, water district voters approved issuing $250 million in bonds for the project.

But the project partners, which include the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County, along with the TRVA and the TRWD, have hit a stalemate regarding a controversial plan to increase the debt repayment period of the TIF from 40 to 50 years.

TRWD officials have stated that the 10-year TIF extension was implicit when the bond issue was presented to voters.

Water district officials and TRVA President G.K. Maenius, who is also the top administrative official of Tarrant County, have appealed to the City Council to hold a vote on extending the TIF. Only the council has the authority to extend the TIF.

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Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke, who is a city representative on the TRVA board, has balked at the TIF extension without a guarantee that the project will receive millions of dollars from the federal government for the project, which is expected to create new economic development opportunities north of the Tarrant County Courthouse.

“The city maintains it would be irresponsible to extend the TIF without a clear path forward to securing federal funds,” Cooke said in a statement to the Fort Worth Business Press.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has authorized up to $526 million to be spent on the Panther Island plan, which the Corps calls the Central City project. Each year, TRVA requests between $30 to $40 million from the federal government to advance the project but only about $65 million has been appropriated under the previous two presidential administrations. No federal money has been appropriated for the project by the Trump administration.

The local partners have already invested $326 million in the project, including the $200 million interest-free loan from the TRWD.

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Mark Mazzanti, a retired Army Corps of Engineers executive who was recently hired as program manager for the TRVA at a contract rate of $25,000 a month, said the 2020 federal appropriations are still unsettled and the project could possibly receive some federal money in the first part of 2020.

But for the project to be in the best position to receive federal money, there are still steps that local partners need to complete, including expanding and relocating utilities, Mazzanti and other TRWD administrators told the board.

Board members agreed to take a serious look at ways to generate local funds to continue progress on utility relocation, land acquisition and environmental cleanup in the Panther Island development zone, which was formerly an industrial area.

Among the proposals that will be considered is a suggestion by TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver to issue $126 million in bonds, which could be repaid within the 40-year life of the TIF, if the city agrees to pay for all the utility upgrades and relocation.

Cooke said he would discuss the plan with the City Council.

Previously, Cooke has said the city is willing to pay $13 million this year for utility work. The entire cost of the utility upgrades is estimated to be at least $80 million.

“The city will continue progress related to relocation of utilities to ensure utilities do not keep the project from being shovel-ready if and when the project secures federal funds,” Cooke told the Business Press.

Although the project continues to have support from the partner agencies, it has faced community criticism and ongoing obstacles with federal funding, which is intended to pay for about half the cost.

Concern about the project’s prospects began to escalate about a year ago, after Panther Island again failed to receive any federal funding. After meeting with top federal officials to discuss the project, Mayor Betsy Price called for a comprehensive review to determine whether changes and improvements would boost its profile.

The recommendations of that review conducted by the Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron were recently implemented, resulting in a restructuring and reorganization of the TRVA.

Among the changes, TRVA executive director J.D. Granger was reassigned to a role within the TRWD. Scrutiny also focused on the optics of the project being managed by the Granger, the son of Republican Congresswoman Kay Granger, who has been a leading advocate of the project and has spearheaded efforts to secure federal dollars.

Also, the focus of the project has narrowed to flood control with economic development activity split off and turned over to the city of Fort Worth.

The project involves the Army Corps 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.

After Price and Republican Congressman Roger Williams of District 25 met with President Donald Trump ‘s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, this past summer, Price announced that the project could be eligible for up to $250 million in federal money to pay for flood control improvements only.

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