We may have to start referring to Mayor Betsy Price as the “velvet hammer.”
Quietly as a stealth weapon she moseyed on down to Washington, with her big Fort Worth smile and distinctive Texas twang to ask for money to help prevent the next Trinity River flood. The last one was 70 years ago, by the way, but no one’s disputing that a good defense can be a good offense.
Price didn’t make the trip on speculation. She asked Congressman Roger Williams to help arrange a meeting with Mick Mulvaney, as powerful a force to be reckoned with as there is in Donald Trump’s White House. Mulvaney is both the president’s acting chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget. If you’re looking to mine a big chunk of money from the federal government, Mulvaney’s office is a good place to start digging.
By all accounts, the July 23 meeting went well. Price came back to Fort Worth saying she had reason to believe that the troubled Panther Island project could now be in line for $250 million of the $526 million in federal funds that’s been authorized by Congress but has been locked up tight over the past several budget cycles.
Price didn’t come back with a check or suitcase full of cash, of course, but the meeting clearly was a giant step forward in what had appeared to be a hopelessly bogged down appropriation process.
“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.”
And $250 million is an extremely important number. It’s the amount that officials say is needed to dig the bypass channel that is essential to the flood control element of the so-called Trinity River Vision. The channel will reroute the river to carry potential flood water away from the flood-prone area west of downtown that was inundated in a historic flood in 1949. The channel will also, its backers believe, generate massive economic opportunities around the island created by rerouting the river.
The bypass channel would also cause water to flow under those three unfinished bridges that have blighted the Fort Worth landscape and tied up traffic to the detriment not only of motorists trying to make their way through the city but also businesses that have been cut off from the customers they desperately need to survive. The $250 million from the feds won’t directly expedite construction of the bridges – the money to build the bridges was committed long ago – but maybe the prospect of water and federal money flowing will spark some progress on that score as well.
This is the second time in less than a year that Price has wielded her gentle hammer and her previously unheralded gift for diplomacy to make something happen on the Panther Island front – a plot of political real estate where the only things happening had been chaos and frustration. Last fall, following an earlier visit to Washington, she called for an independent review of the project to nail down the issues that were causing problems and stifling the flow of federal money.
With the mayor throwing down the gauntlet the Tarrant Regional Water District, which has overall responsibility for the project, had little choice but to go along and subsequently instructed its subsidiary agency, the Trinity River Vision Authority, to commission a review. Conducted by the Dallas consulting firm Riveron, the review found a stagnating swamp of mismanagement, disorganization and lack of focus – a result that seemed to surprise no one except the people at TRWD and TRVA who created the mess and continue to insist they’re doing a great job.
Perhaps Riveron’s most important finding: The flood control portion of the project needs to be separated from the economic development phase. The consultant recommends creating an independent nonprofit corporation to handle real estate and development projects.
Having that information in hand surely was invaluable when Price and Williams sat down with Mulvaney, who along with others holding keys to the government vault was known to be concerned that the flood control plan officially labeled the Central City Project had been overtaken by the quest for a development windfall.
It would be foolhardy to imagine that Price is not already lining up private developers to consider getting their feet wet and taking over this controversial portion of the project.
And hats off to Congressman Williams, who with his family operates the Weatherford auto dealerships that bear his name. Williams is a can-do person who, when he comes home from Washington each week, is usually found at the business selling cars and trucks. He sold his first car at 17 working for his late father, Jack.
Roger is a world-class salesman, which must have been helpful when he and Price sat down at the White House to pitch Panther Island.
It’s informative that Williams arranged the meeting while Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger did not attend, even though she is the political architect and chief congressional sponsor of the river vision – and her son, TRVA Executive Director J.D. Granger, has day to day management responsibilities for the project. Meanwhile, her office continues to ignore requests from the media and public to comment on the Riveron review or the ongoing turmoil swirling around Panther Island.
J.D. Granger and his boss, Water District General Manager Jim Oliver, stubbornly cling to the claim that Kay Granger will deliver the federal money needed to complete Panther Island. So do longtime water board members and other Granger loyalists.
But it took Fort Worth’s mayor and a congressman who has strong ties to the city but not a single Fort Worth constituent in his district to tentatively pry some money loose from federal coffers. You can’t help but wonder if the leadership torch for this project has unofficially been passed from the folks who made a mess of it to a new group of go-getters, armed with fresh ideas, velvet hammers and the power of persuasion. If so, it’s about time.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org