Blowing smoke

Denton residents like Parks and Delores Olmon want to know how a posse of city slickers managed to railroad plans for a lead-belching copper factory in their town

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Blowing smoke
Denton residents like Parks and Delores Olmon want to know how a posse of city slickers managed to railroad plans for a lead-belching copper factory in their town

By Miriam Rozen
These days, Denton folks write dueling versions of history. To some, January 6, 1998, was the day the "city slickers" bamboozled the "country bumpkins." At an infamous city council meeting, big-city developers sat silently while Denton officials unwittingly dispensed false information about a proposed copper factory--including assurances that the dirty, lead-emitting process of copper smelting would never take place there.

Others dismiss that as the Chicken Little take on current events. City boosters--such as the mayor and the general manager of the local newspaper--see it as the day Denton took a bold step into the future, away from its past as a sleepy middle-class university town.

So that factory may end up costing local governments some $1 million in tax abatements; so it may belch a little lead into the environment, supposedly at safe levels. That's the price a small burg pays to compete for new jobs with its much larger metropolitan neighbors.

There's no question which version of history David Noble prefers. The Trammell Crow vice president chose to keep his mouth shut a year ago while city council members blabbed on--sometimes ignorantly--about the copper pipe and wire factory the Dallas real estate development company had been paid to promote. That day, Noble and his colleagues managed to score some impressive tax breaks for the factory, owned by Mexican tycoon Carlos Peralta Quintero.

The January 6 meeting, captured on videotape, shows Noble making nice to the local politicians. "We are trying to come in with a win-win," he told the council members. "We really need your backing."

Whatever it was--the smile, the soothing words, the slick suit and fashionably wide tie--Noble's tactics worked. At the end of a late-evening session, the council overwhelmingly voted to give the copper plant a 25 percent tax abatement for six years.

But before council members rubber-stamped the project, one dissenting voice was heard. Mike Cochran, a first-term councilman with a jutting jaw and liberal bent, rudely dismissed the Trammell Crow company's economic projections for the factory as "smoke and mirrors," and called its descriptive packets a "brochure for Shangri-la."

What teed him off, he says now, was Trammell Crow's exaggerations and omissions. The company initially claimed the factory would bring 800 new jobs to Denton; now that figure had been scaled down to roughly 200, Cochran says.

At one point, he told Noble point-blank: "This seems like a case of big city slickers coming in and duping country bumpkins."

It didn't take long for the Trammell Crow executive's grin to turn into a stricken look. Noble rose to defend himself. "I hope the city-slicker appeal didn't take the Iowa roots out of me," he said quietly. Then, in a louder voice, he told the council, "We want to give back to the community. We want to hire as much as we can from the local community."

The small moment of doubt and dissent came and went. Almost immediately, another Denton council member, Carl Young, tried to smooth over Cochran's remarks.

"I want to apologize for this radical over here," Young said as he turned toward Cochran. "Don't pay attention to anything he says. I hope you didn't take offense at the 'city slickers.' That's not Denton. That's just one individual. I trust everything you said. I know about Trammell Crow. It is one great company."

Despite the rebuke, Cochran stubbornly maintained his stance and cast the lone dissenting vote that night. At the time, it seemed like an ungracious gesture--not the way to greet a company bringing new economic life to a one-dimensional town of 75,000. But Cochran's vote is looking a heck of a lot smarter these days.

Events in the 11 months since that council meeting seem to have vindicated his harsh words. The Trammell Crow company appears to have steamrollered the copper factory through local government channels by misrepresenting its intentions, glossing over key facts, and strong-arming critics. The factory also flew by the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which granted United Copper a permit to pollute without holding a public hearing.

For their part, Denton officials have acted a bit like the duped bumpkins Cochran ridiculed. So eager were they to engineer a reversal of "the giant sucking sound" that H. Ross Perot predicted would come with NAFTA that officials at city, county, and school district administrative offices have showered the copper factory with a potential $1 million in tax breaks over the next six years. Denton's mayor dismisses even the thought of questioning Trammell Crow's good intentions.

"I won't second-guess them," Mayor Jack Miller says. "I came from private industry. I know how you do things."

But dozens of Denton residents, many of whom either live near the almost completed copper factory or send their children to the elementary school a mile away from it, have raised doubts about the plant. With potluck suppers and bake sales, the residents have organized a somewhat belated grassroots campaign against it.

The residents' chief concern: lead. United Copper Industries, a subsidiary of Carlos Peralta Quintero's international conglomerate, has acknowledged in its air-quality permit application to the TNRCC that the toxic substance will be emitted--at federally established safe levels, it says--if manufacturing begins, as scheduled, in January. At unsafe levels, lead absorption has been linked to brain damage, asthma attacks, and a half-dozen other ailments.

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