All Aboard

New ARA Board Swells With Inclusion

"The real crux will finally be whether we can all sit in a room and get through an agenda. Hey, that just hit me. It's `we' now," muses Mark Rogers on the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation's (GNDC) new status as a member of the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) board. After a rocky three-year history, the city council last week imposed major changes in policy and structure on the ARA - a city-funded nonprofit formed to revitalize East 11th and 12th Streets - and in doing so, laid the groundwork for unprecedented cooperation between ARA and area neighborhoods.

According to Paul Hilgers, head of the city's neighborhood housing department which oversees the ARA, the question has finally become "how we should revitalize 11th and 12th, not who should revitalize 11th and 12th." With the final please-everyone reorganization creating 12 new board slots for a now 29-member board, perhaps the question should actually be: who is not revitalizing 11th and 12th?

Originally the brainchild of former Councilmember Eric Mitchell, ARA has been threatened with dissolution since Mitchell lost his council seat to Willie Lewis in May 1997. But while the council deferred all action and comment on ARA to the new councilmember, Lewis has done little to speed progress at the ARA: Funding has been postponed, hiring a permanent director has been stalled, and E. 11th and 12th Streets have sat as desolate as ever. Lewis was even heard to quip last Wednesday: "If it was left up to me, I'd shut the whole thing down and start over again."

Many of the disgruntled stakeholders in the revitalization of E. 11th and 12th may at one time have agreed with Lewis. But, strangely enough, the sheer frustration of delay seems to have created a growing consensus within the debate. Factions who have spent three years battling over everything from the makeup of the ARA board to the boundaries of its target area finally seem to agree that 1998 needs to be ARA's year.

Securing adequate neighborhood representation has been a thorn in the side of ARA's progress since 1995, when Mitchell appointed a board of outside business leaders to draw up a master plan for redesigning the area. Eventually, a year-long fight secured board slots for four neighborhood representatives. And with political pressure from council, 1997 saw the ARA making slow progress toward further neighborhood inclusiveness with a monthly newsletter and public information campaign. Finally, in September, the neighborhoods and ARA sat down for a formal dispute resolution.

Just the act of ARA sitting down to work with neighborhoods was noteworthy, but the dispute resolution essentially ended in a draw with no solution, per se, achieved. While there seemed to be a growing consensus that the ARA was too far along and too expensive - funded by 1.2 million city dollars and 9 million federal dollars - to oust, the organization of the ARA board was still catching in the neighborhoods' craw. Finally, on December 19, the council essentially grounded ARA - suspending its ability to act and refusing to authorize any further funding until an agreement on its organization could be reached.

All this baggage was finally hauled back into council chambers last week. ARA was prepared to submit to changes in the board's structure in order to secure more than $403,000 in funding being held up by council. As usual, though, the area stakeholders had one idea of what the reorganization should look like and ARA had another. And since - as ARA's interim director Byron Marshall puts it - ARA was "interested in compromise, but not really capitulation," the bickering siblings left it up to the parent council to find a solution.

ARA long ago having submitted to the inevitability of more neighborhood representation, the two sides mostly seemed to disagree about the necessity of adding other types of stakeholders - churches and community development corporations from the area, and experienced business leaders from outside the area. The Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN) proposed specific board slots for Ebenezer Baptist Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, and for three community development corporations - East Austin Economic Development Corporation, GNDC, and Anderson Community Development Corporation.

Critics of this proposal seemed to suspect that the same kind of favoritism which secured slots on the original board for Mitchell's hand-picked lackeys was now being applied by the neighborhood power structure for the benefit of their own supporters. ARA's position was that it was unfair to single out two churches for representation while ignoring over a dozen others in the immediate area. Supporters of Ebenezer and Guadalupe argue that they had been actively involved in the debate throughout, not to mention the fact that Ebenezer has invested $4 million to development in the area. "If you're [Ebenezer's Rev.] Marvin Griffin and you've spent 30 years trying to get investment on 11th Street, to be told that you have to cast lots with 15 other churches is a blatant insult," says OCEAN president and ARA board member Letty McGarrahan.

McGarrahan points out that Mitchell supporter Rev. Sterling Lands of Greater Calvary Baptist Church has always had a place on the board as a representative of the "pastoral community." Not that it got him very far at last week's council meeting. In fact, Lands, whose slot was the only one dropped in council reorganization, sat through the council meeting grousing: "I feel very honored that they would go to all this trouble just to get me off the board." City officials point out that the reorganization opened up slots for "other area churches," which gives Lands an opportunity to be elected back onto the ARA board from the remaining churches in the community.

And while ARA agreed that the active community development corporations needed a place at the table, they felt that the aggressively involved Guadalupe neighborhood was over-represented - with a neighborhood association rep, a church rep, and a development corporation rep. "What's three out of 29?" shrugs GNDC's Rogers. "It's only one-ninth of a position on there, the same as the chambers."

Yet even the chambers - the Hispanic Chamber, the Capital City Chamber, and the Greater Chamber - had no certainty of inclusion this time around. When Willie Lewis opened the council debate by proposing that the chamber and bank reps be cut in favor of adding historic preservation representatives in addition to Ebenezer and Guadalupe churches, he shocked almost everyone. "Even though I realize the chamber is important, I think the people on the board are adept enough to know when we need them," he said, suggesting that business groups could be "tapped for information" on an as-needed basis.

The Housing Department's Hilgers, whose own recommendations were being subverted by Lewis' move, threw himself in the line of fire, asking that council get a response from ARA board president and former councilmember Dr. Charles Urdy. "Removing the chambers creates for us a situation that's untenable," Urdy explained to a round of applause from the audience. "If you remove those, I would have serious doubts that we, as a board, can seriously contract with the city to accomplish these things."

Breaking ranks with council's abdication of the ARA problem to Lewis, Councilmember Bill Spelman began to brainstorm from the dais, making a substitute motion that the staff's original recommendation be approved, including the chambers but excluding Ebenezer and Guadalupe, with the added provision of a two-thirds majority vote for the eventual ARA approval of the master plan for the area. With Spelman taking the lead, Councilmember Jackie Goodman chimed in that she was also "uneasy" about losing chamber representation on a board dedicated to economic revitalization. Spelman's motion failed 3-4 with Goodman, Spelman, and Mayor Kirk Watson the only "yes" votes.

What followed was an endless game of add and subtract, headed up by Watson, which finally resulted in a unanimous council bringing anybody and everybody on board - historic preservationists, community development corporations, chamber and bank representatives, Ebenezer and Guadalupe churches, six neighborhood associations, the Urban League, the NAACP, Huston-Tillotson College, and Eastside Story. Finally, it seemed, the only workable solution was to invite everybody to the party. "The ultimate action by the council is reflective of the fact that we hadn't reached total compromise," says Marshall. "We've kind of got overkill here, but have to live with it now."

And the board isn't going to have any time to complain. Lewis and the council also imposed a strict checklist of deadlines and expectations on ARA which, with a board full of rookies, it will have a real uphill battle to meet. The first order of business will be hiring a permanent executive director, which council gave them 90 days to accomplish.

The seemingly endless web of scandal surrounding interim director Marshall suggests that he will neither want nor be asked to stay. In early 1997, the former Austin Assistant City Manager was hired as ARA director while concurrently employed as the Chief Operating Officer of the city of Atlanta. Marshall has been flying into Austin two weekends a month to collect his $96,000-a-year fee for "consulting" at the ARA ever since. McGarrahan says that the neighborhoods will never authorize such an exorbitant expense for a permanent director. Then there is the rumor, raging all over town, that Marshall has been fudging his resumé since attending college at Syracuse University. The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported in early August 1997 that Marshall had, in fact, not graduated from Syracuse, and the story broke in Atlanta just before the city asked Marshall to make a choice between his Austin job and his Atlanta position. Subsequently, in November, the Business Chronicle ran a clarification - that Marshall's paperwork at Syracuse had simply been mixed up. In fact, he had completed an undergraduate degree in history, and about 31 of the necessary 40 hours toward a master's degree in Public Policy, both at Syracuse. But the aura of mistrust built up around Marshall will no doubt hinder his reappointment. "I don't want to be a detriment to the process," says Marshall. "If I find that I am, then certainly I would move out of the way."

The rookie board will have plenty of other questions to contend with as well - including the bidding process to develop Shorty's Bar on 11th Street, and a new plan to open a restaurant along the corridor in a building currently owned by the city. And then there's the little question of condemning buildings and slating certain areas for demolition, which promises to keep the fires of debate raging on the Eastside. Perhaps now, though, with what Urdy jokingly called "the most representative board in the history of mankind," those fires can help spur new growth along East 11th and 12th, rather than continuing to destroy the area's burgeoning potential.

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