Richard Connor: Thoughts of an artist lost and of bridges still not built

Texas artist Bob "Daddy O" Wade at his home studio in Austin in 2012. (AP Photo/Julia Robinson, San Antonio Express-News)

Bob Wade, a Texas artist whose 40-foot-long iguana sculpture once perched atop the Lone Star Cafe in Manhattan and whose 63-foot-high saxophone lured patrons to a blues nightclub in Houston, died on Dec. 24 at his home in Austin. He was 76.

His wife, Lisa Wade, said the cause was cardiac arrest.

For more than 40 years, Mr. Wade, who was known by the nickname Daddy-O, built whimsical, outsize public art that nodded to Texas’ culture of bigness, gaining renown for his uninhibited style but also drawing attention as a serious artist in some circles. – The New York Times

As the year rapidly unfolds, we are thinking in bits and pieces, of events that are unrelated but ramble through the mind slowly, like a laboring locomotive. We are thinking of an artist with deep Fort Worth connections and, once again, about those infernal Panther Island bridges that remain unfinished. And how can we avoid thinking about the elusive federal millions that will be needed to make water flow beneath the bridges when they finally stand ready to end the crippling disruptions of Fort Worth traffic their construction has caused?

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When the 2020 Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo begins its run Jan. 17 with events leading up to the Jan. 24 opening of the first ProRodeo Tournament at the magnificent new Dickies Arena, there will be much to see and much to celebrate.

But the joy will be tempered by the absence of a familiar and treasured presence at the rodeo: Bob Wade, the Texas artist who died Christmas Eve.

Daddy-O, a nickname Wade acquired as a freshman at the University of Texas because of an ultra-cool car he owned, was a Texas original. Immensely talented, he was a serious artist with a master’s degree in painting and he taught art at several colleges and universities.

But at the heart of things he was simply Daddy-O, a warm and personable cool cat without an ounce of the off-putting pretension we sometimes find in the art world. His roots in Fort Worth ran deep and he had many friends here. His 40-foot-long iguana sculpture that once astounded visitors to New York’s Lone Star Cafe is now on display at the Fort Worth Zoo.

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Many of us looked forward to seeing him each year when he would just show up at the rodeo and connect with his friends here. He will be missed.

What we wouldn’t miss, if only we could somehow make it go away, is the lingering problem known as Panther Island, that hopelessly mismanaged flood control/economic development project once called the Trinity River Vision and frequently called a debacle, a disaster, a boondoggle … the list of scornful pejoratives goes on and on.

The most visible and infuriating evidence of Panther Island futility is the White Settlement Road bridge – or should we say un-bridge? It certainly looks like it intends to be a bridge, with or without water, as do two other Panther Island-related bridges still under construction along Henderson Street and North Main Street.

The White Settlement situation is the most distressing because of the toll it is taking on businesses and traffic in the area. Detours and traffic jams have inflicted crippling financial losses on small businesses such as Angelo’s, the landmark barbecue restaurant that has virtually been cut off from its customers. Recent news reports suggest that completion dates for all three bridges have been revised for what seems like the hundredth time, meaning more months of misery for businesses and motorists.

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Meanwhile the Trinity River Vision Authority, which has day-to-day management responsibility for Panther Island, has run out of money so the Tarrant Regional Water District is issuing $1 million in short-term “commercial paper” bonds to keep the project afloat while awaiting word on whether the federal government will release some money as a result of the budget deal approved last month by Congress and signed by President Trump. The TRVA is a subsidiary of the water district.

The federal money is not needed for bridge construction, which officials say is fully funded by state, federal and local resources, but it is absolutely essential for construction of a 1.5 mile bypass channel that will reroute the Trinity River for flood control, create opportunities for riverfront development and, last but not least, put water under the bridges.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers has authorized up to $526 million for what it calls the Central City Project, but only about $65 million has been allocated. Water district voters approved a $250 million bond issue in 2018 to keep the project going until federal money is available but the district says it can’t sell the bonds until the city of Fort Worth approves a 10-year extension for a special taxing district designed to generate local money for Panther Island. The city has resisted the extension, saying it would be foolish to commit more local money until federal money is ensured.

Can we say Catch-22, boys and girls?

It’s been said many times but it bears repeating. There is plenty of blame to go around where Panther Island is concerned, but the water district is by far the guiltiest party. It has mismanaged the project almost from day one, has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the problems and has clung to its blind faith that despite all signs to the contrary Fort Worth Congresswoman Kay Granger will somehow find a way to procure the federal dollars needed to complete the project.

There’s not much the public can do about any of this except for one thing. Voters can demand change every time there’s an election for the water district’s board of directors and throw out incumbents who insist on maintaining the status quo.

It’s hard to believe we ended 2019 talking about Panther Island and now we’ve started 2020 talking about it some more. We can only hope that sometime soon a year will come when it’s no longer a problem.

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