Eclectic commentary from a progressive voice in the red state

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Why scrutinize the Amarillo downtown plan and ballpark?

John Kanelis is my friend, a fellow journalist and blogger and a gentle soul. His posts at High Plains Blogger reflect his kindness and decency. But on one issue, he and I disagree strongly and have for years.

That issue is Amarillo’s downtown redevelopment and the plan that Paul Harpole and the former City Council, aided and abetted by Downtown Amarillo Inc., the Amarillo Economic Development Corp., the Local Government Corp. and the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, have ramrodded since at least 2008.

The three-legged stool (the metaphor of stool is purposely chosen) consisted of a “convention hotel,” a parking garage and a so-called multi-purpose event venue. John focuses on the MPEV, questioning why this ballpark is getting so much attention and repeating, sadly, the City Council “party-line” that (and here is how John said it), “No tax money will be spent on these projects.”

I had a similar debate on Facebook with Walter Riggs, a veteran banker in Amarillo. Like John, he supports the current plan. The exchange with Walter was civil and courteous and in the end, we agreed to disagree. I am sure John and I will also. Nevertheless, here are some of the key points I made to Walter and offer for my reader’s and John’s consideration.

· In 2008, the then- City Commission still had political capital to overcome its sneaky trick of subsidizing the Globe-News Center shortfall, which was $1.8 million, not the “million or so dollars” John cited. The city could have, according to my sources, gotten a bond passed for redoing the Civic Center.

· Alan Abraham, a reluctant candidate who fell to long-time councilor Brian Eades in the recent city election, a while back showed the City Commission/City Council a university-based study that the cookie-cutter approach pushed by DAI and failed master developer Wallace Bajjali that packaged the ballpark, a garage and “convention center” hotel was doomed in a community of this size. I also posited that downtown could be revived using the Herring Hotel as the touchstone and capitalizing on Amarillo railroad and Western history. I still believe that would have been a viable approach.

· It was The Amarillo Independent that vetted Wallace Bajjali better than DAI, the Amarillo Globe-News and the city of Amarillo’s hired attorneys. I suspect those in power didn’t want to listen to the Indy because I was one of those horrible “liberals.” But my politics have nothing to do with it. Nor do I consider being right about this a matter of luck. I believe we uncovered information through hard work, due diligence and good judgment.

John asked why the scrutiny on the ballpark. He notes, “I also am willing to trust that it can be done the way its proponents say it will be done: through lodging revenue collected at our hotels and motels.”

And perhaps that is the difference between a nice guy like John and someone who has watched politics in Louisiana, New Jersey, Colorado, New Mexico and, now, Amarillo. I am not willing to trust the city’s current administration or the prior City Council. Those experiences have informed my cynical view. Further, the way the city has treated the Herring Hotel reinforced my view that something is going on in Amarillo that doesn’t pass the “smell test” and ultimately, with the FBI and Grand Jury looking at the AEDC, may not pass the legal test.

And, that is why we need to watch the City Council and the rest of the downtown planning closely, and especially the ballpark.