Burnt offering

When major-league Dallas soccer wanted to come to Hickory Creek, the folks there just weren't buying

Westlake Park, on the western edge of Lewisville Lake, has that pretty ordinary look that characterizes many of the man-made lakesides in North Texas: It's flat and it's bland. But compared with the vista of Cellular Warehouses, Hooters, and Basset Furniture Outlets bracketing nearby I-35 -- now fully cemented from Dallas to Denton with the sign-clogged rubbish that passes for late-'90s commercial development -- it might as well be Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier Lake rolled into one.

The road to the park runs by untilled farmland on one side, a huge boat-storage yard on the other. Next comes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' gate, where one must stop to pay the dollar-per-person entry fee.

Ahead, stretching to the far shore three miles away, barely visible in the thick summer haze, is a greenish-black lake. Once the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, it is now home to jet-skiers, migrating pelicans, Coors-swilling weekend sailors, and enough fresh water to keep lawn sprinklers in Dallas gushing into the next century.

David Plunkert
Blue Sky developer Peter Brody, shown in Westlake Park at the edge of Lewisville Lake, holds an artist's rendering of his soccer complex. If he had picked some private land, things would have gone a lot smoother.
Mark Graham
Blue Sky developer Peter Brody, shown in Westlake Park at the edge of Lewisville Lake, holds an artist's rendering of his soccer complex. If he had picked some private land, things would have gone a lot smoother.

Out in mid-lake is a remnant of the Garza-Little Elm dam, an earthen spit that used to support a road, plus a grove or two of sunken trees that refuse to rot completely away. The foreground, the park, includes a few dozen acres of mowed grass, a few singular oaks, three picnic pavilions, and a small beach. This, as it turns out, is just the first patch of the larger park, which stretches south along the shoreline to about 200 acres of trees, weedy wildflower fields, and marshland.

It is here, on the edge of the urban sprawl in southeastern Denton County, that the latest variation on a now familiar theme has been playing out over the summer. Yet another pro-sports development was looking to build its business on a foundation of public support, offering in return the promise of prestige, development sizzle, and a list of presents and goodies that not everyone believes will end up under the Christmas tree.

Denton County developer Peter Brody, working in conjunction with the Dallas Burn, the professional outdoor soccer club, wanted the little town of Hickory Creek, population 2,200, to provide about 25 acres of lakeside land for a $1.2 million indoor-outdoor practice complex. Named Blue Sky Sports Center, it would be a Valley Ranch for white-and-black balls, sweetened with fields for youth and adult amateur teams.

"People keep asking, Is this like Dallas building Ross Perot an arena?" says Brody, the chief partner in Blue Sky. "I tell them no, not at all."

But the differences are more in size and structure than in philosophy. No matter how you color it, the issue comes down to this: What do you say to a big-time sports team when they have their hand out?

Although the sums are much dinkier, the proposal in Hickory Creek has been as polarizing and emotional as the Dallas arena debate of 1997-1998 -- only more personal, more biting, more mano a mano.

In Dallas, the Mavericks and Stars spent $2.5 million on slick media campaigns, seducing voters to approve $125 million in public funds for a new, more profitable place to run their businesses. In Hickory Creek, the developer has tried to meet one-on-one with his opponents, promising the town a couple of baseball fields worth $15,000 each, a $25,000 bike path, and a guarantee that there will be enough money to knock the thing down if the project goes broke. One opponent says the Burn's developer even offered him a chocolate Labrador puppy -- but he hasn't changed his mind.

Not anticipating much meaningful opposition, the developer was surprised when an oddball amalgamation of hard-line conservatives joined forces with kooky environmentalists and grassroots homeowners to finally beat back the project. Just how they did it is the stuff populist legends are made of.

In Dallas, arena opponents bought billboards and posted yard signs. In Hickory Creek, gossip, a couple of hard-hitting Web sites, and a little name-calling at City Hall have been more the order of the day. More than once, the conversation would drift from the issues to personalities to who was sleeping with whom down at City Hall. At this level, in this kind of small and sleepy town, it all gets personal. And nobody ever forgets.

One day in early May, Peter Brody walked into the metal trailer that acts as the main office of the Hickory Creek City Hall and sat down to talk with the city's de facto city manager, Public Works Director Mike Milisavljevich -- known around town as "Millie" for obvious reasons.

Brody, a former regional sales director at United Distiller and Vinters, was trying his first project as a real estate developer. And he had a plan: He had received preliminary approval of an $800,000 federal small business loan and a letter of intent from a Major League Soccer franchise, the Dallas Burn, declaring its commitment to use his future facility as its permanent practice site. Brody, a Connecticut transplant, had been introduced to the team's management by a mutual friend in sports marketing, he recalls. He also had contacts with the team through his former employer, which had done business with the Burn -- Jose Cuervo margarita promotions at the Cotton Bowl, where the team plays its home games. Despite his woeful lack of experience as a developer, Brody is one hell of a salesman, and he convinced the Burn management that he was the man who could lead them to a new practice facility.

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