A bombshell dropped on Wednesday that a Fort Worth real estate redevelopment project—run by the son of a congresswoman—is running out of money and risks coming to a complete halt by the end of the year unless more funding is secured.
Panther Island is a massive taxpayer-funded government plan conceived in 2003 to reroute the Trinity River via a 1.5-mile bypass—and redevelop prime Fort Worth real estate—all under the guise of flood control.
It’s a joint venture involving the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), Tarrant County, the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD), the City of Fort Worth, and the Trinity River Vision Authority (TRVA). The TRVA is tasked with coordinating the project.
J.D. Granger—son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger—was hired in 2006 to head the TRVA, with the support of TRWD General Manager Jim Oliver. Granger was hired even though he lacked any related educational or prior work experience.
In 2019, after 13 years of cost overruns and delays, a third-party firm was hired to perform a programmatic review of the troubled project.
The review, conducted by Riveron, shows the original estimate for Granger’s Panther Island—$435 million— was divided among the project’s stakeholders.
To make up the $86 million shortfall, a Tax Increment Reinvesting Zone (TIRZ) was created. Texas Public Policy Foundation describes a TIRZ as a boundary drawn around an area by local governments for a specific period of time. Property taxpayer dollars collected within a TIRZ’s first year is considered its baseline. Taxpayer dollars expected to be collected each year above that baseline become collateral for a loan to the TIRZ for redevelopment, and a government agency is set up to manage spending while TIRZ revenues are paid back to the lender.
Fort Worth created Panther Island’s TIRZ in 2003 to last for 40 years. Riveron reported TRWD loaned the TIRZ $200 million, well above the estimated $86 million shortfall. They found Granger’s TRVA spent over $383 million by 2018—with no construction completed and only the design phase finished. TRWD’s lawyers later told Texas’ attorney general that the design phase was ongoing.
Cost estimates under Granger’s mismanagement exploded to over $1.17 billion in 2018, with the completion delayed until 2028 if $600 million in federal taxpayer dollars arrived.
The need for federal support increased even more on Wednesday when Sandy Newby, TRWD’s chief financial officer, reported to TRVA’s board that Panther Island’s TIRZ only has $73,900 remaining from TRWD’s $200 million loan.
Unless more funding arrives, Newby recommended no Panther Island invoices be paid after December 30. “$73,000 will probably get us through December, but no further,” she said.
When TRVA Board Member and Fort Worth City Councilman Carlos Flores asked if there would be any penalties if they defaulted on invoices for January, Newby said there would not. “It would just be a contractual obligation.”
TRWD wants to loan more money to the TIRZ, but only if its lifespan is extended 10 years. TRVA Board President and Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius said the county would be open to that, assuming the TIRZ could be closed if it repaid its loan earlier than 10 years.
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke, who represents the city on the TRVA board, was unenthusiastic about the proposed TIRZ extension.
“We want to know where the federal funding is going to come from,” Cooke said. “Let’s see if we get that federal money before we keep spending money.”
It’s unclear when, or if, the federal funding will arrive. Sources in Tarrant County earlier told Texas Scorecard the Trump administration allegedly will not restore funding until Granger and Oliver are removed from the project—but both have said they are not leaving. Oliver is expected to ask TRWD’s board to fund operations in January.
That same day that the agency received news it was almost broke, the TRVA board officially hired Mark Mazzanti, formerly of the USACE, as “program coordinator”—a position nowhere found in the Riveron recommendations—for $25,000 a month, or $300,000 per year.
Meanwhile, Oliver confirmed to Texas Scorecard that Granger is still employed by TRWD and currently holds the position of “project manager.” This is consistent with his previous statements that Granger will remain in charge. If the allegations regarding the Trump administration are true, this hurts the possibility of restoring federal funding; in that case, the only option left would be more local taxpayer money.
The TRVA has yet to undergo either a financial or forensic audit of where the $383 million in taxpayer funds was spent. Until that happens, details on how Granger and Oliver burned taxpayers will remain a mystery.
Congresswoman Granger faces a challenge in the Republican primary from former Colleyville City Councilman Chris Putnam, who has made her involvement with the boondoggle a centerpiece of his campaign.