Monday, March 6, 2017

Tyler's Rose Garden, Harvey Hall, and fairgrounds to get a major makeover

I've gone pretty easy on local municipal government officials, except for maybe a little discussion about that hoopla down in Whitehouse involving the city manager and chief of police.  And, to my politically na├»ve eye, it seems that the city of Tyler usually has its stuff together.  But a little article in the Tylerpaper last week caught my eye:

I'm not really ready to pass judgment on this yet, as I don't fully understand what is going on.  But I have a few anxiety-provoking questions.

First, is this about the $%**@!# Rose Festival?

Please tell us now, Mayor Heines and Mr. Broussard if it is, so I can just get my tirade over with.  You can bet your bottom dollar that last year when the city started talking about building a new conference/convention center in south Tyler, the Harvey Hall people (e.g. the Rose Festival crowd) started wringing their hands and fretting about what would happen to Harvey Hall.  Well, now we have an answer:  City leaders plan to bulldoze it to the ground and build a newer, better Harvey hall!

Why do you keep ragging on the Rose Festival, Joorie, you might be asking.  After all is part of our heritage, our history, our culture.  And think about the economic impact!

Well let me address the "economic impact" first.  I couldn't find the 2015 0r 2016 figures published anywhere.  Were they embarrassed by the numbers?  The "economic impact" of the "Rose Festival season" in 2014 was estimated to be about $2.53 million.  Notice they used the term "season," meaning that figure represented not only the 3-day Rose Festival, but about a dozen other events.  $2.5 million and some change sounds like a lot of money, but it's really just a drop in the pond when it comes to the local economy.  The average convenience store probably has more economic impact annually that the Rose Festival.  But I don't see local politicians bending over backwards to take care of some guy named Mahmoud who is working his butt of trying to eek out a living at his Kwik-E-Mart!

Yeah, the RF is part of your "heritage" if you are white, rich, and your family has lived here since the Civil War.  Go over to Willowbrook Country Club (If they'd let you in!) and look at the portraits of the 80-some-odd rose queens.  See one who isn't lily-white?  If I were more left-leaning, I'd assert that the RF harkens back to segregation and that it is symbolic of the wide racial and economic divides that characterize Tyler.  Therefore, the Rose Festival needs to go the way of the Rebel flag and schools named after Confederate generals.  (Oh, I forgot--we still have that here!)  But I'm not that way, so I won't go there.
From 2014 Texas Rose Festival:  Doesn't EVERY little girl grow up
dreaming of being the "Popcorn-Box-Head Princess" some day?

As for "history," the Rose Festival was started as a marketing gimmick to promote the local rose growing industry during the Great Depression.  It has nothing to do with the early settlers in the area or the community's founders, or for that matter, the Native-Americans who lived here for centuries before that.  It's a tradition that has about as much cultural significance as the high school homecoming parade.  As an event, I rank it up there with Comic-Con or a truck and tractor pull--fun (for a few) and frivolous, but harmless.*  The taxpayer's shouldn't have to support it in any way.

So, I hope that it is projected that the tear-down and rebuild of Harvey Hall will pay for itself in terms of increased revenue from events that are held there year-round.  Mr. Mayor and members of the city council, I'm going to have to trust you on that.

So with that out of the way, I can move on to my next question...

So why are we thinking about building stuff for the fairgrounds?

I really don't have anything against the East Texas State Fair (ETSF).  I've been to it a couple of times.  Saw some free concerts, ate some corny-dogs, looked at some hogs, and went home.  It was entertaining in a provincial, chawbacon sort of way.  But again the fair needs to support itself.

Well, apparently this plan for the Rose Garden/Harvey Hall/fairgrounds complex includes tearing down several of the buildings that the fair uses and replacing them with a single "multi-use" facility.  Oh and the planners threw in a stable and arena for the FFA (Future Farmers of America) folks.  Fine, but the ETSF people are grumbling that they've "outgrown" the current fairgrounds and plan to relocate at some point. (Link to article)  So why would we build fairgrounds-type facilities there?

You see, the fair is operated by a non-profit corporation called the "Park of East Texas" (POET) that also operates the Science Place and the Children's Park.  Currently POET leases the fairgrounds property from the city for $1 per year and maintains the property. The city gets a cut of the proceeds from the fair.   As of 2015, POET had a little over $830,000 in cash on hand and it currently owns a property in west Tyler that they paid about $1.5 million for.  Will POET pay for the upgrades to the current fairgrounds?  Or will the city of Tyler foot the bill?  If so, will the city get its money back by increasing the rent on the property or from proceeds from the fair?

A couple of things make me a little nervous about this.  First, POET president John Sykes has been talking about a "public-private" partnership.  I say whenever corporate types (even if they are non-profit) start taking about public-private partnerships, it's often doublespeak for wanting public funds.  But also--and this may just be some tinfoil-hat type suspicion on my part--a look at POET's  executives and directors revealed a few names that are familiar in Smith County's dysfunctional political scene.  So, if I were on the city council, I'd want a full disclosure of POET's financial situation (including who's being paid by them) before I would be willing to commit to anything.

A museum?

Oh, this little detail almost escaped me:
Plans also include space for a proposed Tyler sports museum between Harvey and the Mayfair.
Whuh....a "sports museum?"  What, like a shrine to Earl Campbell or something?  Who the #%&@ is going to cruise down Front Street, park at the Rose-Whatever Complex, get out and to a museum?  NO, Tyler city council members.   Just...NO!

So to bring it home, the final question is...


How will this benefit the community?

Of course there are "intangible" benefits here, such as civic pride.  But the problem I have with this is that Tylerites are being told this year that because of budget shortfalls, services are going to be cut.  Summer programs for poor children were the first to go.  The city won't be able to maintain its existing youth sports fields.  Tyler can't even afford to pay traffic engineers to tweak the timing on its traffic lights to improve traffic flow.  Think about THAT the next time you sit a little too long at a red light!  At this point Tyler can't really afford to spend money just for "civic pride" or to make the Rose Festival prettier.

So, as with any other civil construction project, the following test must be applied:  From a fiscal standpoint, is the city going to at least "break even" on the deal?  Yeah I understand that it is a complicated analysis because things like economic impact and sales tax revenue have to be taken into account.  Hopefully you're reading this, Mayor Heines and members of the Tyler City Council.  When it comes to taxpayer money, don't behave foolishly.  Just remember, a county judge recently behaved foolishly and...

I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
Well, not that.  But a few other individuals and I exposed his misdeeds.  And now entering his name renders some of the most toxic search engine results I've ever seen.   Don't let that happen to you.  Don't let that be the legacy you leave for your children.

We are watching.

*I had this glass-of-wine-fueled flight of fantasy while I was composing this article:  It occurred to me that, if only for fiscal reasons, marijuana will probably be legalized in most states, including Texas.  (I don't advocate marijuana use, but I think it's what this country is coming to.)  When that happens, East Texas--with its mild weather, abundant sunshine, and plentiful water--will be in a position to become a cannabis-producing powerhouse for the region, if not the whole country.  So will there be a "Texas Marijuana Festival" some day?  Seventy-five years from now will some angry cyborg blogger sit ranting online via her direct neural uplink about the ridiculousness of the TMF with its "Cannabis Queen" and "Hemp Duchess?"

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