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Tuesday, December 17, 2002 by

The Historic Landmark Commission and the Austin Visitors and Convention Bureau (ACVB) disagree about what it takes to be a “tourist destination.”

Each year, the ACVB devotes a small percentage of its bed tax money to grants for historical buildings. The amount varies each year but has been as high as $350,000. The requirements of the tax code are that the grants go to structures that are a destination for tourists or visitors to the city or in the proximity of the city’s convention center.

The Historic Landmark Commission clearly considered the Tucker-Haskell House—in the Clarksville Historic Register District—to be a good candidate for such a grant. The Clarksville community intends to rehabilitate the dilapidated structure and turn it into a museum for artifacts of the historic area.

The $5,000 grant wasn’t much, but it was denied by Robert Lander, president of the ACVB, in a letter dated Dec. 9. Commissioner Patti Hall, who asked that the topic be put on last night’s Historic Landmark Commission agenda, said she felt she had been “blindsided” by the convention bureau’s decision.

Betty Baker, who handles historic preservation for the chamber and chairs the Zoning and Platting Commission, was on hand to defend the ACVB decision. Baker said that in her five years with the chamber, not one person had ever requested information to visit the Tucker-Haskell House or the Clarksville Historic Register District. Hence, the house did not meet the tax code requirement to be “a destination for tourists or visitors.”

That did not sit well with the people who put together the grant application. Mary Reed, who was on hand for last night’s meeting, said the grant was a crucial part of rehabilitating the long-neglected Tucker-Haskell House and a chance to create a tourist destination in the city’s oldest African-American neighborhood.

At least six brochures at the ACVB mention the Clarksville neighborhood as a historic destination in Austin, Reed said. She added that the neighborhood intended to use the $5,000 in tax revenue—and a matching $5,000 grant from the Texas Preservation Trust Fund – to create a museum for the public. The community also intends to create walking tours of the Clarksville neighborhood.

The Austin Parks and Recreation Department owns the Tucker-Haskell House. The Clarksville neighborhood, Reed said, is willing to invest its resources into the house where the city has been unable to provide funds and “try to preserve something that is a vanishing piece of Austin history and black history in the United States.”

The Historic Landmark Commission sided with Reed. Hall said the commission would not have placed the building on the list for grant approval if they did not clearly believe it met the criteria of the grant. Hall argued that Historic Register Districts are themselves a destination for many visitors to the city. Clarksville is one of 13 such districts in Austin.

The topic was listed on the HLC agenda as “the Austin Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s decision to rescind the approved grant to the Tucker-Haskell House,” but that language was not exactly accurate.

The ACVB takes applications for the grants, and an HLC subcommittee and the full commission makes recommendations on grant applicants. But the final decision on who does and does not receive them rests with the ACVB, Baker said. So the grant was not taken away because, technically, it had never been made.

This would be, however, the first time the ACVB has declined to accept an HLC recommendation. The only other time historic grants were rescinded was when the ACVB was facing less money than forecast from bed taxes, Baker said.

Past winners of historic preservation grants include the Caswell House, the Austin Women’s Club, the Paramount Theater, Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Huston-Tillotson College and St. Edwards University . After the meeting, Baker said it was clear the commission and the city had different interpretations of what would qualify as a destination for tourists.

“There have been differing opinions of what is a tourist destination between the commission and the bureau for a while,” Baker admitted.

The Tucker-Haskell House is not the only location hit by a letter from Lander. Baker freely admitted to commissioners that a number of past grants would probably fail to meet the “tourist destination” criteria, if reviewed.

Lander sent a letter to Mathews Elementary School, saying the school would no longer be eligible for a grant because it did not meet the “tourist destination” criteria. And a letter went out to the Austin Women’s Club, saying the club could not continue to receive grant funding if it did not agree to provide some public accessibility to its building.

It’s probably no coincidence that the renewed scrutiny of the grants comes during a tight budget year and while the City Manager is auditing the ACVB.

During last night’s meeting, the Historic Landmark Commission agreed to ask for a meeting with Lander, to more firmly outline criteria for the grants program. Baker agreed it was probably best to get firm guidance from the ACVB before the HLC announced its choices to the potential candidates for the grant.

Light rail still much on the minds of board members

The subject of light rail kept cropping up during yesterday’s Capital Metro Board of Directors meeting, even though it wasn’t on the agenda.

At the beginning of the meeting, when Chair Lee Walker was showering accolades on outgoing president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce Mark Hazelwood for his work in that position, he focused much of his praise on Hazelwood’s effort to promote light rail during the referendum two years ago.

Board Member John Treviño also lauded Hazelwood for his effort to garner support for light rail, and said he hoped he would be able to help again when the issue comes before voters in the future. Treviño enthusiastically declared light rail would win next time.

And later, when the board was discussing approval of a resolution authorizing an agreement with Austin Community College to institute a community van service program, Treviño said the van-shuttle, proposed for ACC students, would also be great for light rail passengers. At that point, Walker kidded Treviño about having a one-track mind relating to light rail, to which Treviño responded: “Well, we can use dual track!”

The shuttle-van program was designed to transport students between the ACC Eastview campus and the Millennium Youth Complex in East Austin. Due to the construction of a new Health Careers Building at ACC, the campus is losing 42 percent of its parking, according to ACC’s Tyra Duncan-Hall. She said the youth center offered its parking lot, so now Capital Metro will be encouraging students to take the shuttle instead of driving.

The resolution passed 6-0 with Board Member Margaret Gomez absent.

After a report on the audited financial statements and single audit reports from fiscal year 2001, Walker said he was extremely impressed with the numbers and the marked improvement in the last two years. “I think it’s a tribute to staff. They’ve clearly worked very hard to improve systems,” he said. “I’m struck by the thoroughness. We’ve come a long way, folks.”

And as the board voted unanimously to approve an internal audit plan for FY2003, Walker said again that he was extremely impressed with the progress. Two years earlier, the area of “audit function” was in chaos, he said.

Board Member Fred Harless agreed. “This seems to me to be hitting the high ground we’re after,” he said, praising the plan.

In other action, President/CEO Fred Gilliam gave the board an update on Capital Metro’s most recent ridership and customer service statistics. He said overall ridership for this year, through November, was up 3.6 percent, driven by strong gains in University of Texas student ridership, which is up 14.6 percent. Wheelchair ridership is up a whopping 21 percent for this year, he noted.

On-time performance for November, at 89 percent, is just a hair below the goal of 90 percent, Gilliam said, but the 12-month rolling average is 89.5 percent. The monthly accident rate is in a declining trend, he noted, and the number of abandoned calls coming in to the call center has dropped to 2.67 percent, well below the goal of 5 percent.

Walker said there was “so much good information” in the report that he suggested quarterly reports for Cap Metro’s stakeholders. “I think we’re doing a terrific job . . . and I think we ought to get that word out,” he said.

There is a standing item on the board’s agenda for items relating to air quality. When no one brought up an item for discussion, Walker said someone had suggested to him this past weekend that he was failing the community when it came to bringing together Capital Metro and the issue of air quality. He agreed that more could always be done, and then he mentioned what he said was a very well kept “little secret.”

He said 50,000 trucks are not on the road this year because of the short-line railroad that Capital Metro owns. “Can you imagine if somebody said, ‘tomorrow we’re going to add 50,000 trucks to the roads’?” He suggested that air quality in the region certainly benefits from the vast number of goods transported by rail instead of by trucks.

Emlea Chanslor, a spokesperson with Capital Metro, told In Fact Daily the agency purchased the short-line railroad from the City of Austin in 1998. It consists of 163 miles of railroad, commonly known as the Giddings to Llano Rail Line. The line runs east-west from the towns mentioned, but it meanders through the city, delivering goods to various customers along the way. Some of the main products transported on the line are rock, building materials, plastic and beer.

Each train car carries enough for about four truckloads, she said. In 1999 the line carried enough goods to replace about 8,400 trucks. Now it’s up to about 50,000, and in 2005/2006, the line is projected to replace 133,000 trucks on area roadways.

Sections of the rail line run along the proposed alignment for light rail in Austin.

As the meeting ended, Treviño mentioned light rail one more time, noting that the DART, Dallas’ light rail system, was showing tremendous success. He said he’d read of ridership numbers of around 80,000 a day.

Harless agreed, saying the line couldn’t meet demand, especially for expansion into bedroom communities. “Their ridership is going up so fast, they’re asking people not to get on,” he said.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nofziger possible candidate . . . Former City Council Member Max Nofziger is considering a bid for Mayor—once again. Nofziger, who served on the Council from 1987 to 1996, said Monday that he “very likely” will make an announcement “after the college playoffs, but before the Super Bowl.” Nofziger, who was once a flower salesman on 6th Street, ran unsuccessfully for Place 1 in 1979 and 1991 and for Mayor in 1983, 1985 and 1997. He was a vocal opponent of a plan to bring light rail to South Congress during the 2001 campaign . . . Trustee gets more time to delve . . . The trustee in Gary Bradley’s bankruptcy case will have more time to search for evidence that Bradley is hiding assets from creditors in his Chapter 7 proceeding. Judge Frank Monroe granted a 90-day extension to Ronald Ingalls, the trustee. The previous extension, granted in October, was set to expire on Monday. Bradley owes millions of dollars to the federal government for loans to acquire and develop Circle C Ranch. Environmental groups, including the SOS Alliance, have been putting public pressure on the government to attempt to obtain the money from Bradley . . . Tonight at ZAP . . . Commissioner Diana Castañeda tells In Fact Daily that tonight’s meeting will be her last. She said she told Council Member Raul Alvarez of her intention to resign a couple of months ago. Last week, Alvarez named John-Michael Cortez to take over the position, but he cannot take the seat until Casteñada officially vacates it . . . Nominations sought . . . Nominations for the Philip D. Creer Award are due by Jan. 15. The new award will recognize the most outstanding preservation projects this year as determined by the Historic Preservation Office and the Historic Landmark Commission. One or more awards will be announced during Historic Preservation Week in May . . . Later this week . . . The Brackenridge Hospital Oversight Council is scheduled to meet at 6pm Thursday in Room 304 of City Hall, 124 W. 8th Street . . . TAMACC announces new president . . . The Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce has announced the selection of Carlos T. Mendoza as the group’s president. Mendoza has served as TAMACC events and chamber relations manager since 1995 and is well-known for his fundraising efforts in the state. TAMACC is an association of 31 Hispanic chambers whose goal is to promote economic development and success among its 15,000 members.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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