Fort Worth

Review finds confusion, lack of planning in $1.17 billion Panther Island project

What is Panther Island?

Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.
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Panther Island is a $1.16 billion plan to re-route the Trinity River and redirect flood waters around the low-lying areas north of downtown. Here's what you should know.

An independent review of Fort Worth’s $1.17 billion Panther Island endeavor found confusion surrounding the project’s progress and suggests changes to the management structure overseeing the Trinity River effort.

The report from Dallas-based consulting firm Riveron also found the project failed to plan for funding changes and other obstacles.

Some officials with Trinity River Vision Authority, the coordinator of the flood control and economic development undertaking, sought to keep the report secret until they had a chance to review it and suggest changes.

The Star-Telegram received a copy Friday from a government source close to the project. The 92-page document, distributed to authority board members Wednesday, is marked “draft.”

Riveron’s report does not mention any Panther Island officials by name, but it does suggest making notable changes to the role of J.D. Granger, the authority’s executive director.

Granger is the son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, a Republican who has lobbied for the project in Washington.

The consultant, after digging into the project for nearly three months, determined J.D. Granger’s position should be stripped of some duties and should report to the authority’s board, made up of city and county officials. Granger currently reports to Jim Oliver, a board member and Tarrant Regional Water District general manager.

The Star-Telegram reported in November that Granger, who makes more than $200,000, received no written performance evaluation.

Oliver is “very direct,” Granger said at the time. “There’s not a lot of gray area for what he wants.”

Oliver called Riveron’s assessment a “rough, rough draft” late Friday. He said he hadn’t read the full report yet and would not comment on specifics. The report should remain confidential until his staff and authority board members have time review it, he said.

“Consultants throw stuff up and see what sticks. Some sticks and some doesn’t,” Oliver said. “We’ve got to go through it and clear things up. We’re at the very beginning of that.”

The report found no malfeasance or wrongdoing, he said.

Granger did not return requests for comment.

Among the findings:

The project lacks contingency plans for many uncertainties, like funding, costs, land needs and contracts. Project management documents are not “always available and may not exist in all cases.” This is likely because the Trinity River Vision Authority operates as a coordinator, not a management body, and no project management office exists. Riveron suggested forming a risk management office and reporting structure.

“Inconsistent reporting and high variances to project budget and cash flow estimates, forecasting and reporting, resulting in confusion over project progress, misunderstanding on financial gaps, and perceptions of mismanagement and waste.”

”Overwhelming and complex project financial and reporting information, resulting in a lack of awareness and understanding among taxpayers and stakeholders on project and budget estimates and revisions, and the root cause of those changes.”

A dual focus on flood control and recreation and economic development, “resulting in confusion, project fatigue, and inconsistent views on project direction and priorities, status and expectations for completion.”

To improve transparency and understanding, as well as prevent any one person from having too many responsibilities, Riveron suggests Granger’s position report directly to the Trinity River Vision Board. Along with Oliver, that board includes Tarrant County administrator G.K. Maenius, Fort Worth councilman Carlos Flores, city manager David Cooke and water district board member James Hill. Also on the board are county commissioner Roy Brooks and Streams and Valleys representative Bob Riley.

“They would have sole authority over the appointment of the executive director and will serve as the director’s primary supervisor,” the report states.

The Army Corps of Engineer’s Central City Project, often called the Panther Island project, requires the Corps to cut a bypass channel in the Trinity River north of downtown, forming a roughly 800-acre island. Though the channel is a Corps project, the Trinity River Vision Authority, water district and city act as local partners.

The channel is part of a flood control effort aimed at protecting about 2,400 acres, while allowing some of the city’s levees to come down. The project requires federal funding, about $60 million of which has been doled out. Congress approved $526 million for it in 2016, but funding for it has not been included in the past two federal budgets.

Riveron was selected in April to study the project’s finances, management and structure at a cost not to exceed $460,000. So far, the authority has paid $150,000.

Real estate development

Another recommendation calls for stripping real estate development — possibly the most advertised element of the project — from Granger’s role as authority director.

First reported by KXAS/Channel 5, Riveron suggests forming a nonprofit economic development corporation to take over the real estate and development of the island. Both currently fall under Granger.

Significant confusion exists over the goal of the project, Riveron suggests, and dividing responsibilities would help the district focus on flood control.

The Star-Telegram reported in November that the concept of spinning Panther Island entertainment and promotion into a nonprofit had already been discussed.

To make the distinction between flood control and entertainment clearer, Granger said during a November meeting, the authority had been exploring creating a separate nonprofit, similar to Near Southside Inc., to manage and promote Panther Island events, such as Oktoberfest Fort Worth.

At the time, he said a decision on that would likely come after the review.

“The desire of the board was to hold off on that, let’s maybe talk about that as part of the programmatic review and let’s vet it out with our partners to see if it’s a comfortable fit,” Granger told The Star-Telegram in November.

Congressman, mayor call for release

The release of the full report has been a point of contention.

The report and a presentation was expected to be made public Wednesday, but Maenius, the board president, suggested the study not be released for about a month, arguing staff and board members needed time to digest it and ensure findings and recommendations were based on accurate data.

That suggestion didn’t sit well with Flores, Cooke and Hill. The trio advocated for the document’s release, saying discussion of it should play out in public.

Meanwhile Oliver and J.D. Granger pushed to keep the report secret until they could read it and offer changes. With Star-Telegram and KXAS/Channel 5 reporters present, Granger wondered if the two news organizations would accurately report Riveron’s findings. Oliver said he believed only his staff had a full understanding of the project, requiring them to provide input before the report became public.

Oliver defended keeping the report from the public Friday, saying he didn’t believe it was ethical to release a draft document.

Typically during an independent review, he said, staff are given the chance to make comments or corrections before a report goes to a public board.

“This has been backwards,” he said.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price requested an independent analysis of the Trinity River project in October after reports the federal government would not provide needed funding in this fiscal year. In a statement to the Star-Telegram on Thursday, she said she had expected the report to be made public Wednesday and that an internal review was not part of the timeline presented when the authority contracted with Riveron.

Despite receiving a copy of the report Thursday afternoon and calling for it to become public, Price’s office has not released the report.

A spokeswoman for Price said it was the Trinity River Vision Authority’s responsibility to release the report.

U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat from Fort Worth, urged the immediate release of the report Friday.

“It’s very important that there be full transparency on this project if a level of trust is to be achieved moving forward,” Veasey said in a statement.

A spokeswoman told the Star-Telegram that Veasey had not had access to the report, but urged local public officials to make it public.

Granger also said the report should be made public, but after officials double-check “recommendations are based on factually correct conditions.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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