UPDATED July 12, 2019.
Previews of a report on downtown Fort Worth’s Panther Island Project reveal “insufficient oversight and transparency” among many problems within the beleaguered billion-dollar development. The report, withheld from the public at the behest of officials whose work on Panther Island is under scrutiny, documents findings from the first-ever outside review of the 13-year-old project, which many critics consider the biggest boondoggle in Texas.
NBC 5 Investigates reported receiving an exclusive look at some of the review’s findings late Wednesday, which conclude the taxpayer-funded project has “unclear revenue and expenditure projections,” “unclear financial and management reporting,” “no project management office,” and “inconsistent views on project goals and objectives.” On Thursday, NBC 5 Investigates said it had obtained a copy of the full report, marked “draft.”
The Panther Island venture is run by the Trinity River Vision Authority, a government agency managed by Tarrant Regional Water District, Tarrant County, and the City of Fort Worth. The project’s plan is to divert the Trinity River and create an “island” north of the city’s center, ostensibly improving flood control while creating prime real estate for development.
In May 2018, Tarrant County voters approved a $250 million property tax-backed loan for the project. Voters were told the money would be used for flood control. Prior to that vote, Texas Scorecard called for a forensic audit to find out where the TRVA has already spent more than $440 million in federal, state, and local taxpayer dollars.
The project’s size, scope, and cost have changed dramatically over the years. In 2005, taxpayers were told the project would cost $360 million. Since then, the price tag has ballooned to over $1.1 billion, while the project has fallen years behind schedule. It has also lost financial support from the federal government.
Despite the project’s lack of transparency, immense cost, and years of delays, locally elected officials responsible for its oversight have never sought an outside audit of the TRVA or Panther Island Project until now.
NBC 5 Investigates said it obtained portions of the 90-page report from a “government source” after some TRVA officials—including Board President G.K. Maenius and Executive Director JD Granger—argued at Wednesday’s TRVA board meeting to delay making the report public for 30 days, so TRVA staff could review its findings. Board members David Cooke, Carlos Flores, and James Hill wanted to release the report immediately. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has also called for the report to be made public now.
Granger, son of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R–TX), has run the TRVA for the past 13 years, receiving a six-figure salary. In 2018, his publicly funded pay topped $200,000. Granger said in an interview last year he and his mother “partnered to complete the delivery of the river project. She committed to coordinating all federal needs. I committed to coordinating all state and local needs.”
According to NBC 5 Investigates, the report recommends leaving the TRVA in charge of flood control but separating the project’s real estate development into a nonprofit created by the city of Fort Worth.
The answers taxpayers deserve may be made clearer when the full report on Panther Island is made public. A more thorough third-party forensic audit may still be needed to examine the books.