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Economic development proposals going to task force

Friday, May 22, 2015 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler pushed for and won more time to consider an economic development plan for East Austin on Thursday. The plan will go along with consideration of an agreement to create PGA-style golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

Decker Lake Golf LLC is seeking a 50-year license agreement in order to develop two PGA-style golf courses, a clubhouse, meeting space, a driving range and related amenities on 735 acres of undeveloped land. In addition to the initial agreement, if City Council finally approves the proposal, there would be four 10-year extension options for a total lease length of 90 years.

Adler said he wanted to postpone consideration of the Decker project indefinitely and announced that he would form a special working group to devise a new economic development plan for East Austin.

While many who live around the park have advocated strongly for the PGA courses, parks advocates in other parts of town have argued against it, with several saying it was an inappropriate use of parkland and that the proposal would not result in the economic growth that area residents foresee.

Decker, Adler said, had the potential to divide the community “when it does not need to do so.” He said he believed that Austin was ready to have a new conversation about economic development on the east side.

“I think this golf course question has now been caught up in that conversation (about East Austin economic development),” he said. “I don’t want to be, and won’t be, part of a Council that gives lip service to development on the east side of this town. … And I fear that if we make a decision on this right now, we will be doing it in the absence of a holistic approach.”

Adler also pushed for postponing consideration of a 50-year agreement with the West Austin Youth Association for new ballfields and related amenities at the west side park known as Lamar Beach. He said he would prefer that the master plan for the park be completed before the city extends WAYA’s contract.

Council Member Ora Houston had tied the two together at Tuesday’s work session, saying she would like to have a similar concession policy for all city parks.

On Thursday, Houston made the motion to send the Decker question to a task force to be appointed by Adler. While some might see this as a way to kill the golf course project, Houston and other proponents did not seem discouraged.

Houston hopes that she and Council Member Ellen Troxclair, as well as Adler and two other Council members, will be on the task force. She said that members of the committee, especially the mayor, have relationships with Austin Chamber of Commerce leaders who recruit businesses to come to town.

Up until now, Houston said, those leaders “have had a different vision of what businesses to bring in and where to place those businesses. Now that the mayor is on board … I think people will begin to rethink where those businesses go.”

Richard Suttle, who represents Decker Lake Golf LLC, sounded one note of caution. He pointed out that Ben Crenshaw, famous not only for playing golf but for designing golf courses, had been holding open a spot on his schedule to design the proposed courses at Decker. If the city waits too long, he said, Crenshaw’s dance card might be full.

The agreement with WAYA could come forward as early as June 11, but there was no firm date for it to come back.

Although Adler said WAYA’s youth programs have been a treasure for the city, he added that he had some concerns about entering into a long-term lease, saying he wants to see a master plan completed before the contract is signed. WAYA has provided youth sports opportunities for Austinites for the past 30 years, and the previous Council asked staff to extend the agreement with the youth association for 50 years with a 25-year extension option.

Parks and Recreation Department Director Sara Hensley has argued that the group needs time to raise money to pay for the ballfields and that making them wait for a master plan will hinder fundraising. It was not clear Thursday how this would turn out, but Adler urged Hensley to get the contractor on board to design the park as soon as possible.

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