Sí, Sí, Ccec

A Mitchell Legacy Gets the Greenlight

illustration by Doug Potter

When Eastside activists Dorothy Turner and Rev. Frank Garrett have nothing to say to the city council, you know changes are afoot. Normally, when the Central City Entertainment Center (CCEC) is on the council agenda, Turner and Garrett can be counted on to give long speeches in favor of the center, and to rally dozens of vocal supporters to fill the chambers. Instead, the culmination of their years spent protesting delays in the center's construction arrived anti-climactically last Thursday, when council approved the construction contract for the CCEC at 1156 Hargrave Street. The $10.4 million CCEC - a funded but as yet unbuilt family entertainment center featuring a roller skating rink, bowling alley, and movie theatre - has a long and tortured history. It began as the brainchild of former Councilmember Dr. Charles Urdy in 1993, but Eric Mitchell took on championing it when he replaced Urdy in 1994. Mitchell not only touted the CCEC for the much-needed recreational opportunity it can present for Eastside children, but also used it as a rallying cry for the economic plight of East Austin. Even the smallest agenda item on the CCEC was call for Mitchell to fill the chambers - through Turner and Garrett's influence - with Eastside residents giving long, angry speeches about the need for Eastside development as a remedy to poverty and crime. Mitchell's in-your-face attitude kept the process moving forward in terms of finding federal and city funding, but his tactics only served to stall political support from harassed councilmembers who already had questions about the wisdom of city involvement in operating movie theatres and other profit-dependent ventures. When Mitchell lost his seat to Willie Lewis in May 1997, the political pressure was on Lewis to choose sides in the CCEC debate - either pushing it through over council objection, or putting the kibosh on it for good.

The sea change finally came in November when a wide array of support from the community - instead of the usual Mitchell-allied faces - turned the tide of council objection. Social workers, police representatives, and green-council-friendly Eastsiders such as Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association's Portia Watson all asked that council back the CCEC. Unfortunately, it wasn't really council holding up the center; it was a morass of competing construction bids and delayed federal funding over which council had no control. But the delay did allow Lewis time to position himself as the good guy, rousing council support while exerting his newfound power over the project.

The construction contract for the CCEC went to Descon Construction of Universal City, Texas. It was for $4.95 million, the lower of two bids. Representing Leisure Management International (LMI), CCEC's management company which is already being paid $100,000 a year, Nina Jackson came to council last week to show three television commercials of an LMI-managed center called FunPlex of Houston as a preview of what the CCEC might look like when finished. The flashy commercials jumped from exuberant scenes of bumper cars to the hilarity of laser tag, with deejay-style announcers offering prepaid summer fun packages and cross-promotions with other entertainment venues in town. Jackson suggested that similar prepayment and cross-promotions could be used at the CCEC, along with using the available space for everything from community meetings to high school band competitions. "The opportunities are endless," she said, although adding the caveat that the center "would not have any activity that would promote youth violence, such as the laser tag."

With the bid protests resolved, it only fell to the council to give the go-ahead. Objection to the center has typically emanated from Daryl Slusher on the grounds that the federal Community Development Block Grants which will be used to build the CCEC are meant for housing and job development, not amusement parks. In the past, that opposition brought charges of racism from Turner and Garrett. "Every time I would raise a question, there was always a cry of racism and that kept [the CCEC] from getting the kind of scrutiny it should," Slusher said.

Spinning years of fiscally conservative objections into Eastside neighborhood gold, Slusher kept his questions to a minimum this time around. "There is no dispute that there is a need for this type of project there," Slusher said. Asked whether Lewis heading up the project as opposed to Mitchell could account for council's attitude change, Slusher chuckled: "Apparently."

Lewis has made it clear that, at least in his low-key manner, he intends to exert his influence over the CCEC. He has already started pushing for some rethinking on the movie theatre component. VMI's Cari Parker admits that the finances might sink the theatre idea, which has already been pared down from three first-run screens to a single second-run dollar theatre.

Also on the agenda Thursday was approval for the design of a memorial fountain at the CCEC. The design had already been through the Arts Commission and the Art in Public Places board, but when it came through the CCEC's board, the process stalled. Lewis proposed that as a tie-breaker, the two competing final designs be brought to area schools for a straw vote. When the kid's votes were tallied, the favorite of the Arts Commission and Arts in Public Places board - a multi-cultural, multi-color fanciful concept - was nixed in favor of a more somber, classical design. The classical design passed council 6-1, with Jackie Goodman voting against as a protest to Lewis' subversion of normal procedures. "Some people decided there should be more to the process that wasn't up front. I think [getting a poll of students] is great but it should have been part of what they were telling everybody in the beginning," she says.

The CCEC board worked in concert with Lewis' office on the design issue, but that is just about all they have been able to see eye to eye on since Lewis took office. According to board co-chairs Michael Bryant and Jenniffer Cole Doyle, Lewis' office got off on the wrong foot with the board by refusing to appoint new members to the 10-member board which has now dwindled to six. Instead of suggesting appointments, Lewis has begun talking about a reorganization of the board which may threaten the positions of current board members. "Actually, the board members themselves have said there is a problem with the configuration" of the board, says Lewis' aide Dwight Burns.

Bryant and Cole Doyle see it a little differently. "I hope he's not trying to construe that we're trying to get rid of people," Bryant says. Cole Doyle, who began the group For the Youth, By the Youth, which began the push for the CCEC, reports that Lewis' office has already prepared an ordinance which would wipe off everyone currently serving on the board and allow each councilmember to make new appointments. "None of the councilmembers love me," says Cole Doyle, "so that means that the person who came up with the very idea [of the CCEC] gets put out of the process." Cole Doyle says it is her ties to Mitchell which are hurting her now, though it could be her always-enraged testimony before council. "If you just happen to show any signs that you like Eric Mitchell," she says, "then you're damned in the eyes of this council." No doubt any attempt to reconfigure the board will bring on a new wave of community protests, but perhaps since the CCEC is now well on its way to being realized, the polarizing debates will be a thing of the past.

Police Pay Hike

Over $13 million in raises over the next three years should bring the Austin Police Department (APD) into range with the pay scale of other major Texas cities. But that wasn't what was on the minds of the several protesters who showed up this Thursday when the council approved the results of a nine-month meet-and-confer process between city administration and the Austin Police Association (APA).

The APA is as close to a labor union as you'll get in this right-to-work state. (Policemen are denied the ability to strike without dismissal.) And meet-and-confer - made possible by a 1995 act of the state Lege - is the closest thing Texas is going to get to collective bargaining. The 1995 statute allows both the city and the APA to bring grievances to the table and come up with changes in personnel, hiring, and compensation policies which might otherwise violate city or state codes. This year's raises - coming to us courtesy of the city's general fund contingency reserve and wage and benefit adjustment fund, and from savings at the APD - will add $3,937,056 to the police budget for fiscal year 1997-98. Under the new agreement, the starting base salary for officers will jump from $25,390 before the meet-and-confer agreement, to $30,809 in the 1999-2000 budget year. Funding for public safety now accounts for 50.3% of general fund spending.

Not everyone was happy with the results of the meet and confer, however. Parisrice Robinson, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), came to council to express his disappointment with the APD's new hiring and promotion guidelines. "We are alarmed... that diversity is not mentioned in any context," reads Robinson's prepared statement, which asks for a review of new police chief Stan Knee's record of appointments. Although the meet-and-confer document spells out a policy of non-discrimination, it does fall short of institutionalizing diversity in the ranks.

"I don't think that's accurate," rebuts Slusher. Diversity "is a policy of the city already."

The real show-stopper of the day came, however, when professional political dirt-digger Scott Henson strolled into council with a jambox on his knee. Nearly every councilmember currently on the dais has used Henson's remarkable fact-finding skills during political campaigns, but he's not the sort of guy politicians like to have pop up unexpectedly. Henson came bearing a tape recording of the 911 call from the 1995 "Valentine's Day Riot" on Cedar Avenue (see "Naked City"). The police riot started when an officer breaking up a fight at a teenage Valentine's Day party was injured and his "officer down" call brought 84 officers to the scene. The crackling 911 call was hard to understand over the council microphones, but screaming, moaning, and crying could clearly be heard in the background as a woman called for deliverance from the policemen who were violently raiding her home. "I don't think that kind of behavior merits a raise," said Henson.

After the vote, APA president Mike Sheffield swooped in for damage control, calling Henson's comments "one-sided." He pointed out that the injured officer had 100 sutures. "That puts it in a more fair context than to simply talk about Cedar Avenue being a police riot," Sheffield says. And what about what came next, after the officer was injured? "The rest is up to debate," he said.

There will be no council meeting this week; the next meeting is Thursday, Feb. 26.

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