March 18, 2013

Fort Worth council members worry about parks money in next bond package

Seventy-two percent - $196 million - of Fort Worth's proposed 2014 bond package is expected to go to transportation projects. Only $14.5 million is slated for parks and community services. Everything else on the parks department's five-year wish list including the rundown Como Community Center is on the "deferred list" for now.

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FORT WORTH -- There's no question the aging Como Community Center in West Fort Worth needs help.

Thanks to a stream beneath the 1970s-era building, the ground has shifted, cracking walls, buckling floors, and letting rats wander in through gaps in door jambs. Water bugs billow in whenever the exterminator treats for them, says Carol Brown, the facility's director. City Councilman Dennis Shingleton, while on tour of his West Side district with fellow council members last year, commandeered the bus for an unscheduled visit to the center - and its "abysmal" restrooms.

"They said they needed a restroom. I said, 'I've got the place,'" Shingleton says, recalling the good-natured ribbing he took from fellow council members. "It wasn't a political point I was trying to make as much as a point of need."

The center is among Fort Worth's most heavily used facilities, hosting pre-K, Head Start, after-school, senior and neighborhood programs in the low-income Como neighborhood. City officials agree it likely needs to be knocked over and rebuilt, but it's not guaranteed a spot in Fort Worth's $276 million bond program that's supposed to go before voters in 2014.

It's not the only parks and community services project that may be on the outside looking in. With fast-growing Fort Worth lagging badly in roads and related infrastructure, 72 percent - $196 million - of the bond package is expected to go to transportation projects. Only $14.5 million is slated for parks and community services.

The city staff right now is recommending the replacement of 40 playgrounds for $6 million, the redevelopment of the Heritage Park Plaza downtown with private money and $1.5 million from the city, and a community center in the far north for $7 million. Everything else on the park's department's five-year wish list - another $86.7 million in projects including the Como Center - is on the "deferred list" - for now.

Council members, however, have begun lobbying each other for other projects and discussing whether to bump up parks' share of the bond package. Mayor Pro Tem W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman, whose district later this year will take over Como from Shingleton under the council's new redistricting map, argued for the Como center in a mid-February workshop.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, whose southwest district includes the Chisholm Trail freeway, told council members his district needs $2.5 million to $3 million for development of a park in the growing corridor that will be anchored by a community center previously funded by voters.

Councilman Frank Moss, who represents parts of southeast and east Fort Worth, told council members the old Eugene McCray Community Center needs an expansion and makeover.

Newer neighborhoods in the North I-35 corridor, represented by Shingleton and council members Sal Espino and Danny Scarth in the redistricting redraw, want athletic fields. The city staff estimates Fort Worth is sharply behind other cities in the ratio of fields to population.

Walks and trails also are popular. Staff members note two planned critical sections of the Trinity Trail, if built, would connect Fort Worth's trail system to Arlington's, effectively expanding Fort Worth's network by several miles.

Mayor Betsy Price said it's too early to say whether the council will push more of the bond package into parks, but she thinks the council is leaning that way.

"I think you'll see some shift from this 72-28" ratio, she said.

"I think there is an initiative there, but at the expense of what," Shingleton said. "Does that come at the expense of roads and freeways - I would hope not - or something else."

Jordan said he also senses the council is interested in pushing the parks number higher.

"The discussion to date is we all want to include the recreational facilities," he said.

Espino, who's been pushing the council for more money in parks and more resources in the far north, said, "I believe council is in support for increased money for parks. I believe the next parks bond proposition will be higher than originally proposed by staff."

Zimmerman said only, "I think that is a TBD."

Residents will get a chance to weigh in when the city takes the proposed bond package on a road show this summer and fall. Council members will decide a final bond package in December, and the bond election is tentatively scheduled for May 2014.

Once council members set their priorities, they expect some old-fashioned horse-trading.

"Eight of us and the mayor need to say here's what we think we need," Jordan said. "Then there might be some wrestling matches to live within our means."

Staff members have asked council members to propose offsets or other funding sources for anything they want to move into the bond package from the "deferred" list.

Funds for arts, biking

Jordan has questioned whether some planned bike lanes in the city duplicate some of the nearby bicycling network. And he's questioned whether the 2 percent of the bond package - $5.5 million - to be set aside for unspecified public art projects is too much, given the city's needs.

"I have a problem putting money in the bond package that is discretionary," he said.

Shingleton wondered whether the far North community center is too much for the next bond package. "Can we put some athletic fields in there and do with that for a while?" he said.

Espino, who has been pushing for more money in parks and more resources in the far North, questioned the $7 million cost estimate for the proposed community center.

"I just find it hard to believe it costs so much," said Espino, who's hunting for money to improve the Trail Drivers and Terry parks and rebuild the Rockwood Golf Course in his district.

Price, at the recent bond workshop, said she was skeptical of the staff's cost estimates in the preliminary bond program wish list and asked City Manager Tom Higgins to "scrub the numbers."

The city may already own the real estate it can use for some of the items in the bond package, may be able to reuse existing buildings in other instances, and could also drive down its costs via partnerships with other private and governmental entities, she said.

Concern for Como

Council members are having to make choices among high-profile projects in their own districts.

Zimmerman, for one, is advancing the Como center ahead of putting money into the conversion of the old Z Boaz Golf Course into a park. Z Boaz closed last year as a golf course and re-opened as a park the next day.

The Como center is "the community hub for Como," Zimmerman said. "Everything goes on there."

Z Boaz, also on the staff's "deferred" list, would cost several million dollars to develop. Zimmerman's highest priority is the construction of a dog park inside Z Boaz, but that would require parking on the south end, pushing the price of the dog park to $500,000-$750,000, said Richard Zavala, the city's parks director.

The city currently has set aside $162,000 in natural gas revenue for Z Boaz, Zavala said.

Z Boaz, for now, at least has walking trails that were once the golf course's cart paths, and residents are free to use it as a park, Zimmerman said.

Meanwhile, at the Como Center, Brown, the director, waits. If her center is to be rebuilt, she's not sure the parks department has identified a site.

"I've identified a site," she said, motioning toward a city-owned spot on a hill that already has a ball field. "It would be nice to have it up on the hill, overlooking the community."

Scott Nishimura,


Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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