Just When You Think You've Heard Every Last Bit of WTF Concerning the Trinity River ...

Oh, you caught me here at my desk doing a little quick calculation, totting some things up, always a dangerous exercise for a history major. I picked up what I thought was jarring news during a routine city council committee meeting this morning. I'm trying to see how things might work out.

You know that huge Trinity River project we have devoted much of our municipal energy to over the last decade and a half, with the parks and the trails and the lakes and the Standing Wave (whatever the hell that is)? You know what I mean, right?

Apparently there's no money to run any of it.

None. Not dime one. And apparently our astute city council sort of doesn't quite know that yet.

This morning, the council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee was getting an update on the design for the Continental Bridge, which is to be converted into a linear park. For a while they were stuck on the meaning of the word "bollard," which, I admit, I also found challenging. I was thinking it was some kind of song, typically accompanied by guitar, but that was just my Yankee accent fouling me up again.

A bollard -- do you care about this? -- it's a park thing. A post or something. Can we leave that one?

OK, moving on. Council member Delia Jasso asked assistant city manager Jill Jordan, who will be responsible for promoting events on the bridge once it's a park, "What's our projection on programming for the bridge? Who's going to do special events there?"

Jordan told her, "You have raised a question we have been thinking about for many years, about how are we going to handle the park. Is it going to be run by the Park Department, or is it going to be run by somebody else?"

Not the bridge park. That's one tiny little detail in the overall Trinity River park plan. Jordan meant the whole thing -- lakes, stand-up water whatever, not to mention the gigantic Great Trinity Forest. I mean, that's how they sold it to voters - the biggest urban park in America.

They don't even know what department will be over it.

"That's a fundamental policy question that the council has not taken action on," Jordan said.

Well, ring my gong. Because I spoke recently with the head of the Park and Recreation Department, Paul Dyer, who doesn't even want to accept responsibility for community vegetable gardens, because he ain't got the money. Park and Rec can't even mow the grass in what it's got, the city is so broke.

So if we don't even know what department will be responsible for the huge Trinity River park, then that must mean we also don't have any money for it or any idea how much it will cost. I asked Trinity River Corridor Project Director Rebecca Rasor about that after the meeting. She said she thinks there are some old operations and maintenance estimates from years ago, but she agreed that basically right now there are no current estimates and certainly no money available.

"That's what Jill was saying," Rasor said. "There is going to have to be a fundamental decision by council whether this is going to be a consortium or Friends-of or a city [responsibility]. They [the council] will have to make that commitment and commit the appropriate resources. Obviously you can't use bond money for operation and maintenance. And council knows that. If you approve a bond program, tacitly you approve [the running of it], and that includes pump stations, parks, trails. Anything they approve in a bond program they may or may not have associated funds to operate and maintain it."


I asked if that didn't mean the city will have to come up with new money, fresh money, money from outer space maybe to run this enormous new operation.

Rasor said, "With the fundraising, we could get endowments which could go toward operations and maintenance."

Oh. Endowments. Free money, in other words. Rich people's money. So I've been figuring. According to the current city budget, it costs $9 million a year to run Fair Park. If someone were to give us an endowment to fund operations and maintenance of Fair Park, at today's modest return on investment, how much money would they have to give us? Let's brag and say the city can get 5 percent return on an endowment fund: We would need an endowment of $180 million to run Fair Park.

If the return were a little more realistic, more like 3 percent, we would need an endowment of $300 million.

To be sure, to be sure, City Manager Mary Suhm called me up later to remind me how full of it I am with this stuff. She said: "It would be an absolute waste in work for me to sit down and figure out how much that park is going to cost to maintain, because I don't know what that park is going to be."

Big? Could we say it will be a big park? Bigger than a breadbox? Bigger than Fair Park?

"What we are doing is looking at a variety of possibilities and models to think about as we approach that," Suhm said, "whether you decide you'll do something like Central Park, where there's a conservancy, or you'll hire somebody to manage it."

Hmm. Central Park. Somebody else pays. The rich people solution. Or we "hire" somebody. A for-profit city park. Oh, that would be pretty.

But Suhm told me all of that is way off in the future: "We're a good way down the road from having to make a determination about that," she said.

I asked if that means we will all be dead before anybody gets the bill. She said no -- she won't be, anyway.

By the way, forget about a trolley line over the Continental bridge. Jordan hinted very strongly that there isn't room for one.

And council member Dwaine Caraway's promise during the referendum that there will be no use of eminent domain associated with the Trinity project? Part of today's briefing was an update on how the staff is all locked and loaded to go out and grab properties for the project by eminent domain.

I caught councilman Caraway afterward and said, "You promised! No eminent domain."

He shrugged, as in, Why are you here?

I said, "I am the promise-keeper."

B.J. Austin of KERA, standing nearby, muttered, "A different kind of promise-keeper."

Better believe it, baby.

By the way, just as I was about to hit the "send" button on this, I got an e-mail from Jill Jordan telling me that the city has tons of estimates for operations and maintenance for the park. Oh, good. I asked her to give them to me. I will share as soon as I can. Mixed messages are better than no messages at all.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze