Councilmember Eric Mitchell found himself in the thick of it on Thursday with the council vote on his plan to bring publicly subsidized fun to the East Austin community. By dint of five ayes and a Max Nofziger abstention (Brigid Shea was in Minnesota tending to "family business"), the council accepted an $8.8 million Housing and Urban Development loan to help pay for the $9.6 mil-lion Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC), offering its most firm commitment yet to construction of the Eastside project. In addition to the loan, another $800,000 from the city's general fund for land acquisition as well as design and fiscal studies has already been spent on the project.
Opening day at the center, which
is to house a 16-lane bowling alley, a roller skating rink, two movie screens, and other features, is slated for sometime in the fall of 1996.
Despite the council's near unanimity on this project, a tense and skeptical atmosphere ensued just before the vote. Unbeknownst to Mitchell, an amendment to include an $83,000 computer education center, bearing the unfortunate name of the "Terminal Fun Center," had been tacked onto the package by Councilmember Gus Garcia and Mayor Bruce Todd. It was such a late addition, in fact, that discussion on the item got underway before the council had even seen the amendment.
An uncharacteristically calm Mitchell immediately refused to accept the rider on the grounds that neither he nor the community had expected the center to provide educational programs. "For me to find out about this at the last minute, well, it causes me a little heartburn," he said.
With Mitchell refusing to budge, and numerous African-American speakers levelling hostile remarks at Todd and Garcia (e.g., "You just pulled education right out of your butt!"), the two backed down. Todd instead suggested that the CCEC advisory board, a nine-mem-ber panel created last Thursday, study ways to implement educational programs at the center.
The lone councilmember who
didn't go for the plan, Max Nofziger,
(the self-titled "immediate post-Mayor Pro Tem,"), seemed most concerned that $8.8 million from the city's entitlement to Community Development Block Grants, federal funds normally used for low-income housing, would account for half of the loan's debt service over the next 20 years (the other half will come from the city's general fund). This at a time when rental rates in the city are shooting through the roof, Nofziger added.
Nofziger pointed out another problem: There's no guarantee that the center will run in the black. A $55,000 study by M. Crane and Associates says that at best, the center will pull in no more than $150,000 a year, while debt service and capital expenses are estimated at $1.1 million a year.
Despite the plan's dubious finances, the council took the bait. But just after the item passed, Mitchell, who was seething in response to the short-lived resistance put up by the rest of the council, pouted that, "Maybe, just like `Bradleyville,' [East Austin] can secede from Austin. And there's gonna be some other changes; I look forward to it in May, 1996."
Our elected officials stared down the barrel of another angry mob later in the evening, this time made up primarily of East Austin Hispanic residents who tagged the council as `racists' for not wanting to spend as much as $13 million to bury the proposed upgraded transmission lines that are to be routed just north of Town Lake from the Holly Power Plant to the Seaholm Power Plant. The desire to bury the lines united East and West Austinites, at least for a brief moment: representatives of the Towers of Town Lake, a condominium west of I-35, also wanted subterraneous lines.
The councilmembers, who left the dais in shifts to eat roasted chicken in the antechamber, refused to appease those groups. They concluded that the lines should run overhead, a $2.5 million option, hugging the north shore of Town Lake, then cutting diagonally across I-35 just before Lambey Street, and continuing westward to join the existing line near the Four Seasons Hotel.
Mayor Todd, who cites the council's slow decision-making process as one of the primary reasons voters should opt for a sale of the city's electric utility, offered the lone vote against the proposal. Mitchell was off the dais.
A friendly amendment by Jackie Goodman - directing staff to study new technologies for underground transmission lines - rang false for many audience members; the utility department had already done an underground cost estimate and Goodman was at the same time voting to string the lines in the air. After the meeting, Goodman said that perhaps the underground lines could have been phased in with the overhead lines that had already been built once a more in-depth study had returned to the council.
This week in council: Council will try again to vote on whether to appeal the FM Properties v. Austin case. This was postponed last week because Shea was absent.
Also this week, the mayor will rearrange the seating order on the dais to place Nofziger back on the right end (as you face the dais), traditionally the Place 1 seat. Nofziger has been sitting next to the mayor as Mayor Pro Tem, but recently relinquished that position to Garcia. Mitchell, who currently occupies the right end seat next to his trusted colleague, Ronney Reynolds, has warned other members that the police will have to drag him bodily from his chair. His aide, Donnetta McCall, told the Statesman that Mitchell does not want to be moved to the Place 6 traditional seat on the left end, as the mayor has proposed, just because it is the traditional seat for black councilmembers. It should be a fun one. n