The City Council’s vote on Tuesday to defeat a proposal by Shreveport Mayor Ollie Tyler to hire, at no cost to the city, bond counsel for the issuance of $30 million in revenue bonds to underwrite the construction of a sports complex on Cross Bayou took most of the packed house in the Council chambers by surprise.
The Tyler Administration had been confident that the proposal would would pass on a 4-3 vote. Instead, all six Council members present voted “No”. Once it became clear that the proposal would fail, Council Jerry Bowman left the chambers before the actual vote was cast.
Tyler introduced the sports complex and mixed-use development project at the August 22 council meeting with handouts, a Power Point presentation presented by Chief Administrative Officer Brian Crawford and City Attorney William Bradford. She followed up with a parade of individuals who gave glowing testimonies to the value of the entire project.
This “dog and pony” show was then followed by a slick presentation by the owner and staff of Capitol Realty, a private development firm from Birmingham Alabama. When it was done, many in the council chambers expected the streets around Government Plaza to have been miraculously paved in gold during the meeting.
Shreveport had been promised a $30 million dollar sports complex, at no cost to the city, and a private mixed-used development of at least $150 million dollars that would magically transform a 10 acre scrap yard and surrounding property at the north end of McNeil Street into a “sports ecosystem” complete with thriving retail/restaurant tenants, 200 plus apartments, a hotel and many other amenities that would instantly become the focal point of downtown Shreveport and a major economic catalyst that would restore the City’s coffers to over following. And that was just for starters.
But, lo and behold, despite continued hoopla from the Mayor’s office-- complete with the customary endorsements from the Committee of 100, the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce--the wheels started squeaking on this “economic train to prosperity” as citizens and elected officials took the time to look under the covers of the PR blitz at the basic economics of the complex and mixed-used development project as well as the city coffers.
And suddenly, many realized that this project resembled the parade of the naked emperor—it only being a matter of who would call out the truth and be ready for the heat.
Thankfully first term council members James Flurry, Willie Bradford and Stephanie Lynch quickly announced their opposition to the entire project. It was then an open guessing game on how the remaining Council members, three of which are termed out next year, would vote.
Many questions were asked about the total project by council members and citizens after the initial announcement, and some where answered. Several important inquires were still unanswered on Tuesday before the vote.
From day one, the Tyler Administration and the developer, Corporate Reality, took the attitude of a long-respected institution that was not to be questioned--sort of a “trust me but no questions” position.
Inquiries like how to handle a heavily polluted scrapyard and, just as important, where to move the 10 acre beast, were brushed with homilies like “none of these are matters can not be resolved.” Or that only issue be decided is whether to hire bond counsel, not to design/build the project.
The three muskateers who said “no go” from the virtual get-go were just as concerned, if not more so, by the reality that the projected revenue from the complex would not be sufficient to pay the bond payments after the complex had been open for several years.
Crawford, the chief administrative officer, stated that $1.9 million dollars would be annual subsidy that would be needed for bond payments during construction of the complex and until the revenue stream would become sufficient for bond payments at some undetermined date after the facility was opened. The source of the money would be gaming revenues from the Riverfront Fund.
The only problems with that funding source were that it had been decreasing annually, and that these moneys were being to subsidize the operating budget of the City. Payments on the revenue bonds would thus necessitate unidentified cuts in other city funding.
Other questions about the entire project that were practical, such as the impact on downtown of the half-mile distance of the proposed location from the center of downtown (the Caddo courthouse) and the challenges of the Red River District which is much closer.
Additionally, the decline in retailing downtown was seemingly contrary to the promises of 90 percent occupancy of the retail space by Corporate Reality as well as the projected number of events that would be scheduled at the sports complex.
And mundane matters such as the traffic patterns in and out of the McNeil Street location as well as the advisability of spreading out, rather than concentrating development in the downtown business core, troubled many who evaluated the project. And at virtually the last minute Corporate Realty downsized its grandiose plans, announcing that the first phase would be only $39 million for retail and restaurants with housing and hotel to come later.
The Monday work session was heavily attended and the Tuesday Council meeting had a standing-room-only crowd. The majority of citizens at both meetings favored the project. Many obviously had been recruited and prepped in their comments, which in many instances were based on faulty facts. Citizens speaking in opposition generally hammered the themes of "wants" versus "needs", citing crime concerns, financial stability of the city and continuing infrastructure challenges.
There was no doubt that the Cross Bayou development project, and specifically the proposed $30 million bond issue, was "cussed and discussed" both in and out of the council chambers more than any other issue that has ever been considered by the city council since the institution of the mayor-council form of government in 1978.
The relative ease of communication with cell phones and email, along with social media, is one reason for the "ease" of citizen involvement in government. More important, opponents ignored comments that they were "scared", racially prejudiced, or that they just had "stinking thinking". They focused on the details, rather than the glamour, of the total project . They then took the time and energy to interact with the elected officials and showing up during the work day to actually participate in the process of government.
Whether one supported the Cross Bayou bond resolution or not, all must agree that this exercise was democracy at its best and that the City of Shreveport is all the better for the process. Hopefully this high level of citizen involvement will continue.