A New Day at ARA

Is PR Facelift More Than Skin-Deep?

illustration by Doug Potter

Remember "opposite day," where everything is the opposite of what it is supposed to be? Apparently last Friday was opposite day at the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA), the non-profit organization charged with the revitalization of East 11th and 12th Streets which, since its inception in 1995, has made a name for itself primarily by blocking neighborhood input and refusing to speak to the media. Nevertheless, seated around a glass table in the ARA offices last Friday were interim executive director Byron Marshall, newly hired public relations pro Sharonda Robinson, and former ARA critic Eva Lindsey, owner of the Victory Grill on E. 11th. Normally, Marshall would be unavailable for comment, Lindsey would be calling the ARA a "big convoluted secret," and public relations would be nonexistent, right? Think again.

There was Lindsey, who for months has decried the ARA's lack of neighborhood participation, assuring reporters that this time things will be different. "I believe that the ARA is a very important vehicle for the redevelopment of this community," she said. (Lindsey, who has been hired by the authority to run a telephone bank for giving out information and surveying residents' attitudes, says she will "be the first one to let you know" if ARA slips back into its old habits. As if to further prove that the ARA was turning over a new leaf, Marshall passed out a slick new newsletter they put out, and proudly pointed out that another former critic and ARA board member -- Letty Cantu McGarrahan -- was now endorsing ARA's new focus on gathering feedback from residents who will be affected by the redevelopment.

So why open all the doors and let the sunshine in now? Funny how the threat of losing your city contract will adjust your mindset, and that is exactly what the ARA has been facing. The recent elections saw the loss of the ARA board's founder and champion, former Councilmember Eric Mitchell, who was a whiz at gathering money for his projects while shutting out neighborhood voices at the same time. Mitchell's replacement on the dais, Councilmember Willie Lewis, has, like the rest of the council, shown a propensity to continue to use the ARA as the vehicle for redeveloping the neglected area, but only if a reorganization of the board includes more neighborhood reps in decision-making positions.

Only the latest incarnation in 20 years of city-funded rescue attempts for the East Austin neighborhood, the ARA board was initially hand-picked by Mitchell, and stacked with developer interests to the exclusion of a balance of neighborhood interests. Though Mitchell was fond of warning the council to keep their hand off his "private board," (regardless of the fact it was funded with public money from the feds), pressure from council, especially from Gus Garcia, eventually insured the inclusion of four neighborhood representatives who consistently reported feeling shut out of the process. That's because decisions have come primarily from the board's neighborhoods-free executive committee, and the reps have thus far served as mere council appeasements. Not that executive committee decisions so far have resulted in much more than spending $275,000 on high-paid consultants like Marshall. Now, with Mitchell off the council and a neighborhoods-friendly team on the dais, it looks like ARA is finally feeling the heat.

ARA's contract is up for reapproval on September 19, but will likely get only a 60-day "show me" extension from a city council which is ready to see tangible results and a new attitude from the group. Meanwhile, Mayor Kirk Watson has arranged for one of his patented mediation rituals between neighborhood stakeholders and the group.

Marshall, a former Austin assistant city manager, moved on to be the city manager of Atlanta before signing on to his ARA post in January. He touts the board's new push, but he is not quite ready to condemn the past two years of closed-door meetings and the neighborhoods' shut-out. Rather, he sees the ARA board as following a natural process from an "inward focus to an outward focus.... The people that have felt excluded, I want them to feel included," Marshall warmly explained.

Although he prefers to frame the change as a natural evolution to "external" focus, the fact is that Marshall's public relations facelift does not necessarily reflect a change of heart at the ARA. At a Saturday meeting of the ARA board, it was back to rhetoric as usual with board members Cal Varner and Sterling Lands protesting the Mayor's mediation. Board member Karen Box chimed in, wondering what more public input the process needed after the neighborhood charettes performed in 1996. But despite the board's attitude, Marshall's purely brilliant co-opting of Lindsey as a paid neighborhood pollster and his success in getting McGarrahan on board praising the new process should go a long way to fending off another round of criticism.

The Slum and Blight study necessary to acquire federal funding for the area will be presented to council this week, and Marshall's timeline includes the long-awaited ARA master plan appearing in October and actual infrastructure improvements by December. Although changes are being made at ARA, to hear Marshall tell it, he isn't scared a bit. He insists that now is not the time to shut down the project. "I have the feeling that once we put the information out there, the public will see this is a worthwhile project," Marshall said. "To revitalize, you've got to have an instrument, and this particular instrument at this time is probably the best one." Include the voice of the people in the mix, and he may well be right.

Hispanic Backlash

Speaking of tricky turnarounds, Watson experienced one when his latest appointment to the Planning Commission angered the very Hispanics he was aiming to please. The day after Watson brokered a deal bumping Sid Sanders out of his chairman's seat on the Commission to allow the appointment of Hispanic realtor Art Navarro, a flood of calls to talk radio stations proved that not just any Hispanic was going to do.

Despite rankling activists, Watson says he does not regret his swift move to reinstate Hispanic representation on the commission. "I feel very good about trying to build community as opposed to trying to divide it," he says, adding that most of the reaction has been in support of his decision.

Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, the publisher of La Prensa who lost her seat on the commission when Garcia appointed Asian American Ray Vrudhula, headed up the protest not, she says, because of sour grapes, but because of her concerns about the future of the East Austin Overlay zoning district. "I question [Navarro's] orientation. He's a realtor and he's going to be approaching it from that standpoint," she worries.

Vasquez-Revilla is not taking her pass-over for the commission post lying down. And definitely not in bed. She has enlisted the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in calling for a city and state inquiry into Vrudhula's appointment and an apology from Gus Garcia for "vulgar and sexist statements" he made about her. Specifically, the offending statement came in a quote of Garcia's printed in the Statesman, in which he says he took heat for appointing Vasquez-Revilla in the first place because she "figuratively was in bed with Freeport-McMoRan."

Vasquez-Revilla takes issue with Garcia's characterization for two reasons. First, she claims that Garcia's ethnic background should have precluded him from talking about a Hispanic woman in what she believes was an unchivalrous manner. "Mexican men do not talk like that in public about women," Vasquez-Revilla complains. "How could he when I'm Hispanic and he's Hispanic?"

Secondly, Vasquez-Revilla says she's sick and tired of Garcia linking her with Freeport. She says that Freeport has run a few ads in La Prensa over the years, and that the developer donated money to the paper's eighth anniversary celebration in 1994, but those funds only amounted to a few hundred dollars. "Implying that Freeport is bank-rolling La Prensa is ludicrous, and [Garcia] made 20,000 instant enemies for me in the environmental community" by making that implication, she complains. "Plus, he puts the onus on the environmentalists that he had to get rid of me because of them."

Garcia was out of town at press time and unavailable for comment.

After both the Statesman and the Chronicle reported that Vrudhula's appointment was due to promises Garcia made to his Asian American constituents, LULAC is also calling for an inquiry into ethics violations of Garcia's oath of office which includes the statement: "I have not directly or indirectly promised... any public office... for the giving or withholding of a vote...." While it will probably be very difficult to prove that Garcia promised anything specifically, it does not do much for his image to have LULAC against him. The Asian American and Hispanic Chambers of Commerce are sticking behind Garcia, however. An August 26 press conference had members denying that any campaign promises were made, and vowing unity between the two ethnic groups.

This Week In Council: No meeting, as council members toil away on the city budget.

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