Bud Kennedy

Fort Worth's Panther Island, river project gain speed, but why no voters?

Rendering of the canal near the Encore Panther Island project.
Rendering of the canal near the Encore Panther Island project. Courtesy photo

There was an election this weekend with almost nobody watching.

That's the most dangerous kind.

A handful of voters approved $853 million in new debt for local cities and schools, including $250 million to help top off the $1.1 billion Trinity River redesign and Panther Island downtown.

“This puts to bed the question 'Is this really happening, and do people support it?' ” said a happy U.S. Rep. Kay Granger. She's worked most of her 21 years in Congress to bring Fort Worth a downtown riverfront along with stronger floodways.

It'll happen, though not until 2028.

And we know that of the about 400,000 voters in the Fort Worth-based Tarrant Regional Water District, a flimsy 3 percent actually turned out to support it.

To Panther Island leaders, criticized for years from both the far right and far left for never putting the plan directly before voters, the 66-34 percent victory in the final results was gratifying.

“This meant a lot,” Granger said, “because people supported it, even before they could really see anything.”

Trinity River Vision President G.K. Maenius of Fort Worth said the board didn't expect to borrow money but had to when the price of natural gas holdings hit a 20-year low.

“This is important because it funds the remainder of the project,” said Maenius, the hired administrator for Tarrant County government.

(The chief elected official over the project, TRWD board President Jack Stevens of Azle, was out of town on a family matter. Vice President Marty Leonard of Westover Hills and director James Hill of Fort Worth represented the board at an election watch gathering in a downtown office.)

“It was an intelligent way to do flood control,” said Jim Oliver, the water district general manager.

Voters weren't given much of a choice: either OK the bonds or pay more in property taxes to finish the rechanneling.

But Oliver said the project is already paying off.

“I've seen land in that area go from 50 cents a square foot [in value] to $21,” he said.

Granger gave $25,000 toward a $241,000 joint campaign for the river bonds and $399 million in other city improvements. The local Walsh Foundation gave $15,000, and other top individual donors included Leonard, Mayor Betsy Price and Councilman Brian Byrd.

Voter turnout countywide was puny: 6 percent.

The most newsy elections were in Northeast Tarrant County. Incumbent Grapevine-Colleyville school board Secretary Mindy McClure staved off a well-heeled Empower Texans/Tea Party challenger supported by state Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville).

But Vice President Becky St. John was forced into a June runoff against challenger Amy Putnam by a single vote. That's pending an expected recount, plus a possible investigation into why two out-of-district voters were allowed to vote.

After partial results were mistakenly posted as complete by the Tarrant County Elections Office, Euless candidate Salman Bhojani pulled out a late victory over a candidate backed by state Rep. Jonathan Stickland (R-Bedford).

In Dalworthington Gardens, 22 percent of voters turned out.

Yet Alderman Guy Snodgrass and challenger Horace Riley still ended in a 199-199 tie.

You really oughta vote.

Bud Kennedy, 817-390-7538; @BudKennedy

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