If there was a point at which the mayor of Irving should have realized she was alone in her fight, it was when she was by herself in a Four Seasons in St. Louis staring into a video camera.
It was early this summer, and Mayor Beth Van Duyne had removed from the council’s agenda a preliminary vote on negotiating with a new contractor to finish Irving’s controversial entertainment complex in Las Colinas. The mayor won election in 2011 by saying she would oust Las Colinas Group, the original developer, and the project’s concessionaire, Billy Bob Barnett. She’d painted them as wasting the city’s money, and voters agreed.
Now, though, Irving was trying to rescue the project with an out-of-state developer, Ark Group. Council members were working to find a resolution that would get the project back on track and simultaneously do away with the lawsuit LCG had brought against the city in the wake of Van Duyne killing their deal. Everyone was on board with that solution.
Everyone except Van Duyne. When council members maneuvered to get the preliminary vote back on the agenda, Van Duyne, away on personal business, freaked out, demanding she be allowed to participate via video feed, overriding staff concerns about the legality of sitting in closed-door meetings through a public video conferencing setup.
During the meeting, Van Duyne railed that the Ark Group deal shouldn’t progress. The group hadn’t been vetted! (In fact, it had.) The project should be put out to bid! (The judge in the LCG lawsuit had forbid the city from doing just that.) After Van Duyne successfully scuttled the vote, the mayor quickly left, leaving council members staring at an image of an empty chair in a public hotel space, wondering just who was listening in.
To longtime Irving observers, the council’s bickering was nothing new. City politics there has always been bitter and personal, fueled by rumormongering and ulterior motives. But to many, Van Duyne has turned up the crazy to a level that ventures into baffling and perhaps damaging. To them, she is not a transparency advocate and reformer, but instead someone using Tea Party austerity rhetoric to distract a fractious electorate while she consolidates power for her benefactors. True or not, Irving finds itself in choppy waters with her at the helm, and she must find a way to solve the entertainment center debacle before the ship can be righted.
“She is trying to mess up everything we’ve worked for for the past decade,” says city councilwoman and bitter critic Rose Cannaday. “And I don’t know why that is.”
To be fair, much of the private criticism of Van Duyne smacks of sexism. Opponents, even female ones, can’t speak long about her without sneering about her physical attributes or her charisma. (“Don’t meet with her,” one source warned me. “She’s too charming.”) Critics love to drop in personal details (whom she’s dating, etc.) while complaining about her policies. Bottom line: she’s smart (Cornell-educated), attractive, and magnetic, all of which fuels jealousy.
That acknowledged, Van Duyne’s vitriol against the entertainment center project and the players involved borders on the absurd. Everyone understands why she ran against LCG and Barnett two years ago: she painted them as money-squandering fat cats overseeing a boondoggle. Fine. But now even her supporters wonder why she is fighting a resolution to the point where it could harm the city—and, by extension, North Texas.
Who’s upset? People like Jerry Jones, who has told friends he will never do business with Van Duyne again and is ready to take the Dallas Cowboys headquarters to Frisco without offering Irving a chance to better that suburb’s enticing offer. As well, businessmen with whom I’ve spoken are appalled at the mayor’s current hard-line stance in the lawsuit, which suggests a public-private partnership can be undone anytime a newly elected politician decides she doesn’t favor it. “If the city wins,” a Las Colinas CEO who voted for her said to me, “what businessman would ever do a public-private deal with her again?”
To many, the final proof that the mayor was dead set against a solution came in a closed-door meeting with city officials and representatives from Standard & Poor’s, the financial services company that issued the city’s prized AAA bond rating. As you can read on the city’s website, Irving is “one of five cities in the state and 89 in the nation with a AAA rating from both Standard and Poor’s (S&P) and Moody’s—ratings that it has maintained since 2007 and during the worst recession in U.S. history.” In this meeting, though, Van Duyne was told by S&P that Irving could face a reduction in that rating, as S&P was troubled by (among other things) the LCG lawsuit. This is important because that rating affects how much the city has to pay to borrow money.
That’s when Van Duyne, to the semihorror of everyone in the room, told the representatives that she was not going to settle the suit, or even consider options that would appease LCG and get the company to drop the suit. “We’re not worried about the lawsuit—we’ll win,” she told S&P. Despite that no one else in the room believed that to be true. Van Duyne denies this was said. (I have no idea if those words were spoken, but I believe the point was made, as does everyone else at that meeting.)
The doubly ridiculous part about this is that there is a proposal from the Ark Group on the table that takes care of all the lawsuit problems. If named the developer, Ark Group would pay off the money that LCG is seeking from the city, use TIF funds and taxes generated by the project (that go away if you don’t use them), and Ark Group would fund the rest of the development itself. Presto: Las Colinas gets its sweet new entertainment complex. Which voters have said they want.
Van Duyne says that she has not seen a proposal that essentially costs the city nothing. I don’t believe that. What I do believe—as do others, who’ve already said they would say this if they’re deposed—is that she is simply against the deal in any form, and wants the lawsuit to continue at any cost.
Why is she so against it, then?
“This is a good deal for the city,” one neutral party with intimate knowledge of the proposed new-developer deal told me. “The main reason she’s against it is personal.”
Well, sure. All politics are personal. But personal against whom? No one knows for sure. Billy Bob Barnett says she hates him because he has spent a lot of money backing her opponents. Others say it’s because her political supporters are trying to wrest control of the city. Others say she’s good ol’-fashioned power mad. Such claims often make her opponents sound obsessed and Van Duyne sane. Witness her recent Dallas Morning News editorial that begins as follows:
“If you believe recent media coverage and social media buzz, you would think the city of Irving is a no-growth suburb run by a bag full of angry cats. But look beyond the fight promoters and you will see that Irving is a happening city.”
Her column sounds sensible, devoid of context. Yes, Irving is happening. The departure of the Byron Nelson golf tournament is happening. Exxon Mobil opening a huge new campus outside Houston and not in Irving is happening. The entertainment complex not bringing a sense of nightlife to Las Colinas is happening.
Maybe she doesn’t see that Irving has real problems. I stayed at Nylo Dallas/Las Colinas for a recent weekend of Irving-only gallivanting. I’m not saying Las Colinas is the most soulless sea of parking lots and chain restaurants in Dallas County. I am saying it makes The Shops at Legacy feel like the streets of Buenos Aires.
To many, the first step to fixing this is getting the entertainment center built. To do that, the mayor needs to show the sort of ingenuity and commitment she showed at a hotel in St. Louis. There’s a time when even politics can’t be personal.
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