Richard Connor: Can you say ‘conflict,’ David Cooke? The bigger problem, of course, is Sundance Square

(Photo by Amber Shumake)

David Cooke, Fort Worth city manager, has himself in a pickle, and is now part of the tired narrative of the rumormongering, Facebook baiting, petty and not-so-petty sniping about Ed Bass and wife Sasha, and what they plan to do with the 35 blocks that make up Sundance Square.

Cooke has now joined a long list of public officials and public figures who do not understand the impact of “perception.” We have been writing about conflict of interest and “perceived” conflict of interest literally for decades going back to the Fort Worth City Council in the 1980s. The best – or worst –  example has been the Tarrant Regional Water District, which only recently started to move toward operating above board and with transparency.

It shouldn’t be so hard to understand. When something “looks” bad or fishy it needs to addressed head-on, no matter if it’s real or merely perception.

Cooke now joins the ranks of officials in our town who can’t seem to understand this concept –  who can’t seem to understand that when he and his wife fly to Aspen with Ed and Sasha Bass on the Basses’ private plane for Labor Day weekend it “looks bad.” Ed and Sasha Bass need friends at City Hall to help with various issues and projects at Sundance Square. When they do not get their way, they have employees who are less than polite and understanding to enforce their will, according to various sources.

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Fuel for a private plane ride from Texas to Colorado is expensive. Perhaps Cooke should either reimburse the Basses for the cost of the trip, or at least for what it would have cost to fly commercially?

Mayor Mattie Parker is faced with a serious dilemma as she navigates her second year as the city’s top elected official. She has a city manager now embroiled in controversy and sure to be a distraction. She does not appear to be in control and at least publicly has done nothing to settle the turf wars at Sundance.

Mayor Parker needs to lead, to step up and take command, or her administration could find itself an object of suspicion and mistrust, as management of the water district was for so many years.

It is unclear if Cooke has run afoul of any city rules or regulations regarding the ethics of accepting gifts or other things of value.

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He was quoted as saying, “Some of this is all about perception because we are friends…. So, we socialize together. And so it’s incumbent on me then on the decision-making part of the city to make sure that stuff is done above board.”

Ah, that it could be so simple.

Cooke was also involved in an incident at the new Hotel Dryce, where his group, which included at least Sasha Bass and maybe Ed, was accused of rude, disrespectful and arrogant behavior in the bar. Cooke just recently denied anything untoward happened at the bar that night. That caused Dryce owner Jonathan Morris to send out this tweet: “I’m not 100% sure that I’m being called a liar by the FW City Manager. But I am 100% sure I have video from that evening in November. I can manage to share with the city. Or we can just all agree to do better.”

Many years ago, D Magazine profiled the power structure of Fort Worth. In that story it was pointed out that various members of the Bass family wielded power, mostly individually and not as a monolithic group, even though they are often grouped together in reference. But the lawyer for most of those in the Bass family at that time, the late Dee J. Kelly, pointed out a telling and enviable family characteristic.

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“They are not bullies,” Kelly said.

Several tenants in Sundance Square would disagree with that characterization of current ownership and management.

The Business Press has been working with a highly respected data company monitoring and measuring retail, shopping, and entertainment customer traffic since shortly after COVID began in 2020 and started being blamed for virtually every ill known to man, woman, and business.

There is no doubt the pandemic changed life as we once knew it, probably forever.

Among those pointing a finger at COVID for their ills were the Sundance owners. Businesses were shuttered. Tenants moved out. Parking fees were raised and residents cried foul, saying they could no longer afford to shop and dine downtown. Businessmen and women grumbled and whined.

Our studies showed that customer traffic downtown and at malls and strip centers did, in fact, drop but none dropped at the rate of Sundance Square. We compared Sundance to other large, metropolitan cities. It fared worse.

Locally, shoppers and diners have increasingly abandoned Sundance for Clearfork, the Stockyards, and smaller venues such as the fast-growing developments along University Drive.

Ed and Sasha bought 100 percent control of Sundance from brothers Sid and Lee in 2019. It’s been all downhill since then.

The original visionary for Sundance Square was the eldest Bass brother, Sid, who brought together a group of 100 businesspeople at the Fort Worth Club in 1975 to outline his plan to rebuild and energize downtown around a theme that harkened back to our Western, cowboy traditions.

At the time some folks in the room did not know who Sid Bass was – honest –  and wondered, “Who is this young guy, and can he do this, remake downtown?”

Oh, yes. He could. Bass Towers. City Club. The Americana, which later became the Worthington. Make no mistake about it –  Sid Bass was the builder of Sundance Square. He came. He saw. He conquered. And then moved on. Among other ventures, he invested (along with his father Perry and Fort Worth born and bred associate the late Richard Rainwater) in a company that at one time made the Bass family the biggest shareholder in Disney and along the way made the family billions.

You want to understand the family money tree, start first with Perry’s uncle, wildcatter Sid Richardson, and then Perry, and then Sid.

Sid succeeded greatly downtown and must be saddened at the demise of Sundance Square, which is now not much more than grist for ugliness and people with bad manners and no class and bad behavior. It is a dark cloud that hangs over the city.

How unfortunate to see a city on the cusp of greatness become little more than a joke because its leaders cannot get control of what was once a major drawing card for visitors and local residents alike.

In a meeting some months back Mayor Parker was asked what she could do to make the Sundance controversy go away and she confidently said she could.

Why? How?

“I have the power to convene,” she said.

Well commence convening, Mayor, because you are losing this race.

Here, there, everywhere the endless and mindless chatter abounds. Dog poop dropped off at longtime tenant Haltom’s; bickering about the big Christmas tree and who would and who would not pay for it; and just this spring the creation of dueling arts festivals. How childish. How disheartening.

What folks should realize is that Sundance Square is owned by a husband and wife who can do with it what they want. It’s theirs. You can lease space from them for your store or restaurant, but you do not make the rules. They do. No one says you have to like the rules. And last time I checked it is not illegal to be mean, vindictive, petty, power hungry or suffer from low self-esteem. Lacking class and kindness will not put you in the slammer.

Ed and Sasha have not lost many battles, except …

The one time the couple and their hired bully, Bryan Eppstein, were stymied was last spring when they tried to force Downtown Fort Worth Inc. to allow them to landscape Sundance the way they desired, whether or not it conformed with the rest of downtown and its flora and fauna.

They were told bluntly they could not make the rules on landscaping. Other than that, they have had their way on just about everything. There’s nothing new about that, either. Rich folks have power and powerful people let their money do the talking and they get their way.

The Cooke situation will be resolved one way or the other. The Business Press has always found him forthright and a straight shooter. We’ve seen over 30 years of city managers. He is among the better ones.

What will happen with Sundance is anybody’s guess. There is about all of this something more deadly for Fort Worth and its reputation.

It’s a dangerous conspiracy of fear and silence that is troubling. Other than Dr. Marie Holliday, a dentist and downtown retailer, and Mike Micallef of Reata Restaurant no one will go on record or make statements for attribution about Ed and Sasha Bass and downtown.

That fear, that terror that causes people to abandon freedom of speech because they are scared of rich people in power is devastating to a city, a state, and even the country.

Someone ought to say it, though. Thank you, Sid. It was miraculous while it lasted.

Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at