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Council vote on Decker Golf contract uncertain

Wednesday, March 4, 2015 by Jo Clifton

At least four members of City Council expressed an interest Tuesday in sending the question of whether the city should enter into the contract for a developer to create two PGA-class golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park to a Council committee, making it less likely that Council will actually vote on the item Thursday.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Members Leslie Pool, Greg Casar and Pio Renteria all said they would like a committee to discuss the item further after two hours of presentations and deliberation about the proposal from Decker Lake Golf LLC during Tuesday’s work session.

The company is seeking a 50-year license agreement in order to develop two golf courses, a clubhouse, a meeting space, a driving range and related amenities on 735 acres of undeveloped parkland. In addition to the initial agreement, if Council finally approves the proposal, there would be four 10-year options to extend the license, which could bring its total term to 90 years.

District 1 Council Member Ora Houston, who represents the area closest to the park, said she opposes just sending the question to the committee. Houston said Council should allow the developer time to do its feasibility study and give the Economic Development Department an opportunity to work on a strategic plan for the area.

She said, “But to say to the people who have been working on this park for what will be a year in May and the other part almost two years, I think that says that we don’t trust their ability to make some decisions for themselves. And I think that’s an important thing that we must all take into consideration.”

Renteria responded that the chair of the Parks Board contacted him. “And she told me that she was against it and she lives in District 1, and that’s why I was really confused,” he said. “She urged me not to support this.” Renteria noted that he did not know how the Parks Board had voted on the matter.

Houston informed him that the Parks Board sent the proposal to Council without a recommendation, having voted 3-3, with two abstentions. One of those who abstained is the chair, Jane Rivera, who said to Colony Park residents during the meeting, “I am not going to stand in your way and vote against this project that you want. But I want you to know I am abstaining from voting because I just can’t support what I believe to be the beginning of gentrification in your neighborhood.”

Casar, meanwhile, said that because of Tuesday’s discussion, it is feasible that he will vote for the project. He said he just needs more time.

Assistant Parks Director Cora Wright emphasized that all the improvements put into the park would become property of the City of Austin. Under the proposed contract, Decker Golf would pay for all maintenance and care for the courses. She pointed out that in addition to the golf course improvements, the developer would be building a trail, a pro shop and restaurants to make the park more usable by the public.

Without the developer, Wright said, none of that would be possible.

In a memo to Mayor Steve Adler and Council this week, Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley noted that Decker Golf would terminate the contract were it unable to secure a PGA Tour event. The city also would have the right to terminate the contract at any time.

Pool wanted to know if that meant the city would lose access to the well that Decker Golf’s Warren Hayes intends to build on his land to pump water from the brackish Trinity Aquifer to water the greens.

City Manager Marc Ott said staff would include continued access to the water in any contract.

Hayes said he has a development partner who intends to build a resort hotel next to the golf course that will create 500 jobs, in addition to employment opportunities generated by the course itself. However, Hayes declined to name that partner when asked by media representatives after the meeting.

Hayes told Council at Tuesday’s work session that this developer would build a 500-room hotel with 70,000 square feet of convention space if Decker Golf gets the concession to build the golf courses at the park.

Hensley’s memo cited a 10-year economic impact of $334.5 million for the city based on estimates from Decker Golf.

Several Council members indicated that the job creation benefits of the golf course itself seemed rather low, with only 35 permanent positions created during the first phase of the project, according to Decker Golf’s estimate. It also estimates up to 168 construction jobs for the first phase of the project and up to 113 construction jobs for the second phase.

Council Member Delia Garza, for one, seemed unimpressed with the nature of the jobs offered.

In estimating the financial benefits to the city, Decker Golf says it will share revenues ranging from 3 percent to 11 percent during the first 15 years of operation. Taking $4 million as an estimated gross revenue, the city would receive $120,000 under the 3 percent multiplier.

Deputy Director of the Economic Development Department Rodney Gonzales said the city has taken several steps to increase economic development in the area, including designation of a triple free port zone, which decreases the tax burden on companies located there. He said the city would be taking additional steps to encourage development.



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