Burnt offering

David Plunkert

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.

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.  

If Hickory Creek could provide some undeveloped park land at next to no cost, Brody told the city, he would deliver a sports facility that would make the place a first-rate soccer town. The sports venue would include an indoor field, a training room, coaches' offices, and at least four outdoor fields -- plenty of room for the Dallas Burn to practice, plus greenspace for hundreds of adults' and kids' league teams that are always in need of places to play.

The plan would require the city to lease Westlake Park from its owner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, then sublease about 20 acres to Brody. Pending further negotiations, Brody promised to maintain the park and pay Hickory Creek a minimum of $1,000 a month -- far less than the $1.5 million to $2.5 million price tags he found attached to the purchase of similar commercial property in the surrounding areas.

Brody couldn't have found a more receptive audience, given that Millie and several Hickory Creek councilmen already had plans of their own for creating new playing fields and parks. They had designs on taking control of Westlake Park, leasing it from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and using it as a city facility, as neighboring Lewisville, Highland Village, and Lake Dallas have done in the past at other lake parks. And they thought they'd have no problem getting feds on board. Ken Howell, the corps' Lewisville Lake project manager, says his department has a policy of permitting -- and in fact encouraging -- municipalities to manage their lakefront parks. By unloading real estate, the corps cuts its operating budget and frees money for other projects.

There was another favorable wind blowing off the water. Under a master plan the corps developed in the '60s, the park was designated as an eventual site for recreation -- ball fields, tennis courts, maybe a marina and beaches.

"Peter Brody said what he needed, and I said, 'You're describing Westlake Park,'" Millie recalls.

Six years ago, when Millie first went to work for the town, his "fleet" of service vehicles numbered one used postal truck and an old trailer. The tax base consisted of revenue from several late-'70s and early-'80s subdivisions, a boat storage facility, and the town landmark: Hickory Creek Barbecue out on I-35. Its pig-shaped smoker is to Hickory Creek what the Arc de Triomphe is to Paris.

The boundaries and main roads begin to make sense only when Hickory Creek's history is explained. According to Millie and several other locals, a couple of major landowners on the eastern edge of the town of Lake Dallas tired of its boozy, honky-tonk atmosphere and decided to begin a good, dry town of their own. Hence, Hickory Creek. That explains why Main Street is simply an extension of Lake Dallas' Main Street -- and why the tiny municipality never developed its own main drag, tax base, or clear identity.

"I've lived here six years, and I just tell people I live in Lake Dallas," says Hickory Creek councilman Doug Miller. "I'm tired of explaining where it is. When you heard the name, did you know where it was?...Neither does anyone else."

Miller was one of the first people Mike Millie brought into talks with Blue Sky, and he immediately became one of its chief backers.

"My son plays baseball and soccer, and he's been playing on substandard, privately run fields. No city in the Lake Cities has any city parks that include them. That's the platform I ran on when I got on city council a little more than three years ago. I want to build these things with private-public partnerships," says Miller, whose Illinois-based family was part of the Daley machine in Chicago.

In a tax-shy town that isn't likely to pass a park bond without a fight, Miller says, it makes sense to find a private developer to build facilities that the public can use.  

Under U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rules, any revenue Hickory Creek generates from Blue Sky must be plowed back into the park. Miller and Millie see that as a constant revenue source for building more playgrounds and playing fields and facilities.

"Who wouldn't want to have a funding source for parks and rec?" says Millie, adding that he's been talking about the city taking over the park for several years.

"Two years ago I would have told the city council it would have been a risk financially. I wouldn't say that now. We're in as good a shape now as we've ever been."

The reason for his change of heart sits a few hundred yards north of City Hall, where one of three new subdivisions is being carved out of the fairly deep woods and fields that make up the town's west side.

"I got a 365-lot subdivision going in here, got another 80 lots going in here," says Millie, running his finger around a blue-lined survey map of the town. "I just talked to a guy today, and in the real near future, we're gonna be developing all this commercial property up here."

The fact is, south Denton County sprawl has come to town, and Hickory Creek has land to develop on its rural west side of I-35. The area became ripe for plucking only recently, when a new McDonald's stand helped pay to get the town sewers extended under the freeway. Now, it seems the entire west side of town is either under the blade or for sale at the right price.

The 500 houses Millie expects to be built in the next several years will be priced between $150,000 and $350,000 and aimed at young families. "People are going to be demanding we build these kinds of facilities," says Millie. Indeed, the new side of Hickory Creek appears to be a perfect habitat for carpools of Suburbans loaded with boys and girls in shin guards and cleats.

But those people, at the moment, live somewhere else, and Hickory Creek is still a small town. Nowhere is this more apparent than Millie's business card, which reads "Public works director, Building officer, Code enforcement, Animal control, Etc."

And a lot of people who have lived in Hickory Creek for decades or moved in before the late-'90s boom like it small and sleepy. Millie and his supporters never imagined the depth of feeling -- from the philosophical right and the environmental left -- or the crystallization of such a vigorous coalition of grassrooters hell-bent on seeing the plan fail.

And once they started picking apart Blue Sky, its weaknesses became clearer for everyone to see.

Jim Clarke, a Hickory Creek council member and a sales rep for a Dallas trucking firm, says the Blue Sky controversy had him talking with people whom "I'd never dream of being on the same side of, for anything."

Clarke maintains a Web site called "The Conservative Fundamentalist Whacko," on which he posts his political cartoons and Web animation. It's mostly take-no-prisoners Clinton-bashing with young women in clinging skirts and plenty of Monicagate. He added a second Web site aimed at Blue Sky after his council colleagues voted 3-2 on July 14 to enter formal negotiations with Brody. His own opposition, he says, was both philosophical and practical.

"It's a bad idea. I don't think the city should invest so much in one person's idea," he explains over a soft drink at the sewer-providing McDonald's. He would have no problem with the plan if it were pursued like most enterprises -- on private land. That option, Brody had explained to him, would mean an initial investment of as much as $2.5 million in the sports facility. Clarke says Brody never adequately explained to him why he simply did not choose that route.

Clarke believes there is a risk that the feds would close the park entirely if the Blue Sky-Hickory Creek enterprise failed. Neighboring Lake Dallas dropped the ball at one of its leased parks, and that's just what happened. Once one of these lakeside parks goes off the federal budget, it takes a vote of Congress to bring it back.

"The park is underdeveloped now, and that isn't necessarily bad. Another thing that bothers me is how this has been railroaded through. It's been rush, rush, rush. Brody arrives in May, and we're voting to jump in on the deal in July."

While Clarke fought from within, a number of ordinary citizens stepped up to organize, research, write and print fliers, petition, spin, and generally rally the opposition. "We're not a bunch of hicks," says Cherly Roemmele, who two decades ago purchased two acres on a beautiful country lane right next to the park. "We know how to do this. We've done it before."  

In the late '80s, a Grand Prairie company came to town pitching a drive-through zoo. But the debate fell around election time, and the town rose up to oust the mayor and change the balance of opinion on the council. The menagerie was never heard from again.

Roemmele, a veteran of the zoo battle, says the thickets and grasslands and forested areas adjacent to her house are loaded with wildlife: bobcats, bull snakes, coyotes, red tail hawks, and all types of migrating birds. An opposition Web site quickly posted photos of four native birds on the federal endangered species list: the bald eagle (since removed from the list), the whooping crane, the mountain plover, and the black capped vireo, and instructed, "Take a photo of these birds in Westlake Park and save their home."

Real estate agent Clyde Fisher, who sells many of the $120,000 homes in the existing subdivisions of Hickory Creek, says the sleepy nature of the town and the undeveloped park land are selling points he doesn't want to lose. "That park is one of the largest pieces of undeveloped land around here, and people are trying to figure out how to feather their nests. I understand that. I'm a businessman. But it is public land. It would be better if it were brought to a public vote before they do anything with it."

Opponent Terry Dyson, an engineer, immediately began gathering documents from the Army Corps of Engineers about their requirements for such a project and at times seemed to know more than most of the politicians about the intricacies of the plan.

He learned that the corps spends about $64,000 a year mowing the grass, picking up trash, and making minor repairs -- costs that would fall to the town or Blue Sky under the new arrangement.

He also learned that the corps would require the town to show it has adequate financial resources independent of any fees or subleases from Blue Sky to keep the place up. It would need, according to the corps memo he received, a "full-time park and recreation staff responsible for operating and maintaining the leased [park]" -- which it currently does not have.

On June 16, Dyson also made an open-records request to Hickory Creek for Blue Sky's business plan and written correspondence with the city -- an inquiry Hickory Creek's attorney sent to the Texas Attorney General's Office for a legal opinion. Dyson is still waiting for his documents.

Residents Diane Ciarloni and her husband, John Woodrum, who don't want "our city government cramming things down our throat," met with Brody in late June, after they spoke up at several city council meetings and he searched them out. "He [Brody] said he intended to meet with every person who is against this project and change their minds. That's how confident he is," says Ciarloni. "And he is g-o-o-o-d. He was in sales, and he has this face that's a cross between John Denver and I don't know who. You don't know why you want to be so harsh with this guy."

During their talk, they say, Brody disclosed that the Burn's lease payment to him would be almost enough to cover his approximately $6,200 monthly payment on his Small Business Administration loan. He said he expected to pay Hickory Creek at least $1,000 a month, more if Blue Sky became profitable, Ciarloni recalls.

Like a lot of people who lived in Hickory Creek during the 1989-1990 Lewisville Lake floods, Ciarloni and her husband also wondered how he could build in a park that has been under water twice in the past decade. Brody told them that he planned to raise his proposed 30,000-square-foot metal building one foot above the 100-year flood level -- the imaginary line used to delineate where flood waters reach an average of once every 100 years. That way, the outdoor fields would flood and the building would not.

Ciarloni and other critics wondered how Brody could remain in business, however, with his building, parking lots, and other facilities inundated in murky, debris-laden water, which in past floods had taken months to recede. Brody conceded there is a chance that some of his operations would be hampered -- in the rare event of a 100-year flood -- but not enough to ruin the business.

Brody went on to list his sweeteners -- the promise to maintain the park for five years, the two public baseball fields, the bike path along the entry road. But the couple says they couldn't believe Brody could keep all his promises and run a profitable business.  

"He has this habit," Ciarloni says. "He wants you to believe. He's a promoter who knows what should be coming out of his mouth. I don't think he's hardcore trying to mislead, but he makes a lot of promises."

Like the one about the dog.

"At one point we were talking, and it came out that I used to raise chocolate Labs," says Woodrum. "He told me his dog Kelly was chewing, and I gave him a tip on how to keep Kelly from chewing. Peter said he was going to keep the dog around the place when it opened and that she was pregnant. He says, 'John, I promise you one.' And I thought, 'I'm gonna lose a dog, because I'm not changing my mind about Blue Sky.'"

Meanwhile, Nita and Gary Van Cleave -- bird-watchers who love the park in its current, mostly wild state -- began circulating a petition. "The traffic in the neighborhood would be awful," says Nita, who has taken in a stray iguana and two lame grackles, giving her house the feeling of an animal-rescue shelter.

What galled her husband, Gary, about the project was the fact that a majority of residents appeared to him to be against it, but that the council was plowing forward with negotiations anyway. Of the 43 people who spoke at the big public meeting at the high school on July 14, only 24 were city residents. Of those, the breakdown was 15 against and nine for.

Because of Hickory Creek's city charter, referendum and recall elections are not allowed. So Gary, an air-traffic controller, and Nita went to work. They set up their own Web site titled "Hickory Creek, Texas: The Only Town in America Without Representation."

It included links to texts of proponents' speeches, opinion polls, and information on how to join the opposition. The Van Cleaves helped organize a rally in the sun-blasted parking lot of King Bros. Boat Storage. They showed up with a rack of "No Blue Sky" T-shirts, which they sold for their $5 cost, and began gathering signatures from what seemed to be a decidedly older crowd.

Randy King -- who himself made inquiries this spring about expanding his operation into a parcel of Westlake Park, which adjoins his boatyard -- says the soccer traffic could only hurt business, so he took out an advertisement in the local paper, The Lake Cities Sun. The part of the ad copy that really riled Brody and company wasn't the warning about "higher tax liability" or "crowded streets" or the "possible permanent park closing." It was the part about the little-discussed history of Blue Sky and the warning that "four other cities have already said no."

That was an overstatement, but Brody had clearly fished his idea around in some of the larger towns in the area before he arrived in Hickory Creek. No one bit.

In Highland Village, across the lake from Hickory Creek, there simply wasn't any room, says Parks and Recreation Director Randy Truesdell. "Brody outlined what he wanted, and we really didn't have a suitable space." Beyond that, the city already has about a dozen practice fields and six game fields spread over three different parks.

In Flower Mound, Parks and Recreation Director Bart Stevenson says Brody had "several long discussions with a group including the city manager, town council members, and the mayor. We were in a preliminary discussion stage when he got his break in Hickory Creek, so we left it lying there," says Stevenson. "The general structure was, he was going to lease land in a city park, pay X number of dollars per year, and the public would get some access to it."

By far the worst reception Brody received was in Corinth, two towns north of Hickory Creek, where discussions had progressed the furthest.

"There were too many unanswered questions. We just couldn't get sufficient information [from Brody] to make a definite judgment," says Corinth Mayor Shirley Spellerberg, who along with the rest of the city council heard Brody's proposal in a meeting in late January. "He wanted us to build an indoor soccer place and put in two outdoor fields. He was going to pay the city back over a number of years. With the debt service, it would have been a couple of million dollars, and the city would have had to issue bonds."

Brody had been considering putting his facility in a new 116-acre park Corinth voters approved in a 1996 bond election. "That park was voted in for use of our citizens. To put in a commercial endeavor would have changed the whole idea of the park," says Spellerberg.

Kay Swihart, a member of the Corinth parks board, recalls that Brody wanted a five-year lease and that "if he would have walked after only five years, we'd be burdened tremendously...I looked at this pretty closely, and you can't identify yourself with one team. The Dallas Burn might not be popular five years from now."  

She adds that Blue Sky "backed out of the deal. We asked for a more detailed plan, and they never responded. They just dropped the ball."

Brody, using the Hickory Creek City Hall trailer as an interview site, explained that the council reacted so negatively that he decided not to pursue the project. "It was my first brush with a city government, and I said to myself, 'At this point in time, let's shake hands and thanks for the memories,'" he explains over the roar of a passing train. "I told them I'm just gonna go in a different direction."

The direction Brody took turned out to be south, and straight into the drink.

After the city council's green-light vote in mid-July, Brody, the Burn, and company were high on Hickory Creek. "We like the site," said Billy Hicks, the Burn's president and general manager. It might be 45 minutes from downtown, but, says Hicks, "Most of our players live north." Now in its fourth season in Dallas, the Burn is one of two teams in the 12-team Major League Soccer that is still owned and operated by the league, which also began in 1996. The rest have been purchased. Attendance averages a paltry 13,000 at the Cotton Bowl -- the third lowest in the league.

Playing 16 home games in a season that runs from March to mid-October, the team requires a practice field virtually year-round, Hicks says. "We're a tenant now," he says, referring to the team's arrangement to practice at the Greenhill School in North Dallas. "A dedicated site would be much preferred."

In short order, the Hickory Creek council drew up a five-year plan for Westlake Park, as the corps requires, and passed it. It also approved opening discussions with the corps over the leasing of Westlake Park.

By the time Brody and a party of Hickory Creek officials met with three corps officers from its regional Fort Worth office on August 11, the opponents had already peppered the feds with anti-Blue Sky e-mail.

And it was that poison the corps used to kill the lakeside proposal, which it didn't favor for a number of reasons.

"We thought it was better for them to go back and see if they could work things out in Hickory Creek before they came to us," says Ron Pivonka, an outdoor-recreation planner for the corps.

If opposition remains, he said, the corps would likely do a 45-to-60-day environmental assessment. If there remained "overwhelming significant public opposition," the corps might require an environmental impact statement. That could take as long as two years and would cost Hickory Creek, the applicant, as much as $150,000.

"We have been hearing some concerns from the public about the proposed development, and in light of that, we recommended that they give some serious consideration to some more public meetings at the city level, a little more public disclosure," Ron Ruffennach, a corps spokesman, explained.

And he confirmed what Brody and several city officials say was the corps' second major hang-up: using federal land for a pro team. "We have expressed some concern about how much this federal land would be available for public use. We have to look at the exclusivity associated with that part of it. We're not so sure to what extent this facility would be made available to the public," Ruffennach said. Apparently, the idea of the national government taking an interest in what has historically been a local concern was one public-private partnership the feds wanted no part of.

According to Millie and Miller, who were both in the meeting, the corps officials said the Burn's involvement would bump the decision-making to Washington.

"They were telling us in so many words: Go away," Miller says. "There are two factions in this town, and the anti-Blue Sky faction isn't going to change its mind if you paved the road leading up to it with 14-karat gold."

Indeed, the prospect of having to wait two months -- and then possibly two years -- on an uncertain process wasn't in Brody's or the Burn's plans.

Brody says now that he is pursuing other possible deals: "We're looking at some alternative sites." But he declined to say that his efforts in Hickory Creek are absolutely over. "Right now I don't know. The picture is pretty cloudy."

Sounding a lot like the pro owners in Dallas who not-so-subtly worked one city against another in pursuit of their basketball-hockey arena, Billy Hicks (no relation to Tom Hicks) says he also has other suitors.  

"We've had interest from other cities who have land to be developed and partners to help them do it. There's a huge shortage of soccer fields in the metroplex. People see there's a drawing card in having the local professional team involved."

And while no official announcement has been made, opponents in Hickory Creek are trumpeting their victory on the Web: "Thank you fabulous Corps of Engineers for protecting the interests of the citizens against the Blue Sky development," the Van Cleaves' site blares. (By this time, councilman Clarke had taken down his site. Brody's lawyer had warned the city's attorney that Clarke might have defamed Brody when he questioned the veracity of his résumé.)

Clarke claims it was time to take down the Web site anyway, and then adds, "I think this time you can say the system worked. A majority of citizens were against it, and they rose up and squashed it. That's the way it's supposed to be."

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