Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Unusual Insights: On the Wal-Mart backstory, the 'Statesman' displays its (yawn) everyday low standards

Austin At Large
Damn. Where do we start poking holes (suitably safeguarded with gloves, mask, and long, pointed stick) in the Statesman's crusade of the week? If you just returned from Mars, let me fill you in: Last week, the Statesman read someone else's e-mail and discovered that, to its amazement, the coordinated citizen campaigns against the proposed, and now deposed, Wal-Mart Supercenter over the Edwards Aquifer were funded in large part by Stratus Properties. (Insert sound effect here.) We have now been treated to a massive, rambling Page One story by new-on-the-beat City Hall reporter Jonathan Osborne; a curiously fashion-conscious John Kelso column; a ludicrous and spiteful lead editorial; and a bylined thumb-sucker by Arnold Garcia, in which he gives the public (and the players in this story) a lecture on e-mail prudence, ignoring the fact that he and his newspaper decided other people's private jokes were worthy of front-page exposure. It must hurt to wash one's hands so vigorously.

Oh yes, there was also a Ben Sargent cartoon that, as is often the case, captures the story better than any of the Statesman's verbiage. This is a story of struggle between two out-of-the-ordinary developers -- Stratus and Endeavor Real Estate Group -- each with its allies in positions of power, each with conflicting visions of how the city should grow, in which the community's opposition to Wal-Mart and/or big-box retail, especially over the aquifer, became a field of battle. (Beau Armstrong vs. Kirk Rudy, three rounds, no holds barred.) It goes a lot further than just the competition between Endeavor's proposed Wal-Mart and Stratus' proposed HEB, which is as deep as the Statesman's commentators have cared to go, or perhaps are able to go. Both Armstrong and Rudy have set their eyes on the same prize -- to survive and succeed in the Austin growth wars, where so many less sensitive developers have failed, by building alliances with leaders on the left and trying to Do the Right Thing. Whether they really are doing the right thing, we can judge for ourselves. But that's the game. So far, Armstrong is winning.

I've been told the HEB deal hadn't even been conceived when the pro- and anti-Wal-Mart alliances were first forged, and that the Statesman's spin about "competition" is simply wrong on its face, no matter how loudly and petulantly the daily repeats it. But so what? Stratus is the largest landowner in the potential trade area of the proposed Wal-Mart at MoPac and Slaughter. It has, and has long had, relationships -- not always great ones, but real ones -- with the surrounding neighborhoods, who played a key role in the fight against Wal-Mart. And, of course, Stratus has its own development deal with the city, where it agrees to comply (in its opinion, and the city's) with the intent of the Save Our Springs Ordinance and agrees not to build big-box retail on its own property.

Very Subtle Ethics

Even if you opposed the Stratus deal, as I did, you can still accept that Stratus' partnership with the anti-Wal-Mart forces is more than a marriage of convenience, and even if you just can't accept that Stratus is sincere about environmental protection, it has plenty of valid reasons for opposing Wal-Mart. Why wouldn't it be a legitimate stakeholder here? And why shouldn't it drop its own money into the cause? The Statesman has done exactly the same thing in the past, more than once -- not as an editorial voice, but as a corporate and political player with a well-used checkbook. (Think "baseball stadium" or "SH 130." Did Statesman Publisher Mike Laosa register as a lobbyist?)

In truth, the Stratus Files themselves -- which I have read, with scant pleasure -- offer little to illumine what I think is the only story worth telling here; wallowing in these "secret" documents is at least in part a muckraking pose. But the Statesman just can't abandon the Master Narrative -- the war between the good tribe of developers and the bad tribe of enviros, neighbors, and citizens, in which Kirk Rudy and Beau Armstrong are on the same side, even though they're clearly not in real life. So to the Statesman, the big news here is that progressive consultant Mike Blizzard took Stratus' money, after having worked against the Stratus deal last summer -- not that, for damn good reasons, Stratus and its erstwhile foes have found common cause and, at least temporarily, put their differences aside. Normally, this is the sort of thing the Statesman tells us we as citizens should do. But I guess consensus-building is not only wrong but corrupt when the daily does not share in the consensus.

Most of the "issues" raised by the Statesman are, to use the technical term, bullshit. I presume the Statesman knows how to access and read the city code online, specifically the part that regulates lobbyists. Despite Garcia's hambone cracks to the contrary, it's quite clear that Blizzard (and, for that matter, his fellow consultant Mark Nathan, who being "centrist" and allied with Will Wynn makes a less useful villain) did not "lobby" the council or city staff and couldn't have registered as lobbyists against Wal-Mart -- a "municipal question," to use the code's term, that didn't exist, since the council's hands were famously tied on the MoPac/Slaughter tract. But then, Richard Suttle, Wal-Mart's lawyer and no stranger to the ranker scenes at City Hall, is cast as the ethics advisor in Osborne's piece -- a sure tip-off that readers should find a fish that needs wrapping.

Running Downhill

Of course, this assumes the Statesman actually understands its own story, which isn't always evident from reading its "unusual insight." (Beau Armstrong used to be Daryl Slusher's "nemesis"? When?) The fact that Blizzard, or Nathan, and Stratus didn't widely proclaim their financial relationship does not make it a "secret" whose revelation is front-page news. Nor does forwarding an e-mail to Daryl Slusher, while making that document "public," make it front-page news. (Slusher says his home e-mail volume has "dropped significantly" in the last week.) The fact that the Stratus Files were assembled in response to an open-records request not from the Statesman, but from lawyer Brian Cassidy -- on which the daily piggybacked after the fact -- is news, though not front-page news. (The dates on the files themselves show that Slusher's office delivered them to the city law department days before the Statesman first asked for them. The city apparently considered fighting the Statesman request, since the Wal-Mart case is headed for litigation, but decided not to.)

Cassidy is the lawyer for the very angry owner of the MoPac/Slaughter tract, whose list of potential litigation targets now obviously includes Stratus as well. Hardly a neutral source. He appears in Osborne's story, but his role in spawning the story goes conspicuously unmentioned. (Both the Statesman and the Chronicle reported on Cassidy's original open-records request, so it's not like they didn't know, and I'm sure they had enough space to cram in another sentence.) One can suppose (as many have) that the Statesman got spoonfed the Stratus "scoop" -- by Cassidy or his client or someone else with an axe to grind -- and has chosen to keep this fact hidden. This may not be true, but even if it is, it wouldn't be relevant except in the context of the daily's harsh and pompous judgment of others' ethical purity. Backatcha, Arnold.

And there are plenty of axes being ground here. I find it really hard to believe that Endeavor or Wal-Mart or Richard Suttle had no idea Stratus was paying Mark Nathan and Mike Blizzard and helping fund the anti-Wal-Mart campaigns. But there they were in the Statesman last week, whining and carping about the lack of a "level playing field," which may be the funniest thing I've read in the daily in years. (Let's review: Endeavor has Wal-Mart, Richard Suttle, a tract exempt from SOS, and a bound-and-gagged City Council. Stratus has a no-big-box clause and impervious cover limits on its own land. This playing field is about as level as Enchanted Rock.) Are they playing dumb to fool the Statesman, or is the daily so dumb -- and so blinded by its now thoroughly obsolete politics -- it can't tell the difference? end story

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Stratus Properties, Wal-Mart, Endeavor Real Estate Group, Beau Armstrong, Kirk Rudy, Daryl Slusher, Statesman, Arnold Garcia, Jonathan Osborne, Richard Suttle, Brian Cassidy, Mike Blizzard, Mark Nathan, lobbyists, consultants, Edwards Aquifer, big-box retail, MoPac and Slaughter

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