Thursday, February 22, 2018

Hinsley 'debacle' casts doubt on city park plans

By Jimmy Daniell Isaac
Feb. 9, 2018 at 11:10 p.m.

Bradley Beaty plays disc golf in January 2016 at Hinsley Park in Longview.

In early October, developers said they had federal permits needed to build a new Hinsley Park and a retail development on the site of the existing park, saying they needed only to secure covenants with retailers committed to the project.

Four months later, no dirt has been turned at either site, and city staff says it's heard no updates.

"We are in a holding pattern," said Parks and Recreation Director Scott Caron.

That has led several members of the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board — concerned the unmet promises are harming chances to get public support for other parks projects — to suggest that no news isn't good news.

"We've been told for a few years now that these things were inevitable," parks board Vice Chairman Stephen Dale Alderman said of delays tied to permits and agreements. "The only thing that has been inevitable is the lack of communication in the whole process."

For many Longview residents, it has been a long, dark road since Nov. 3, 2015 — the day voters gave the City Council permission to remove the park designation from Hinsley Park on U.S. 259 North.

Removal of the designation is necessary to let the city sell the U.S. 259 property back to the Cargill family that donated the land — a requirement of the deed — so the family can in turn sell it to developers.

Before the referendum went to the ballot, Plano engineer Craig Carney and Houston-based SDI Realty touted the idea of ripping up the park in fast-growing Northeast Longview to build a shopping center with such anchor tenants as Kroger Marketplace and Academy Sports & Outdoors store. They also promised to build a new Hinsley Park on 38 acres off Judson Road.

Promises before vote

During a City Council meeting two days before the election, Carney said, "This isn't a fishing expedition ... The commitment has been made and Kroger is all in on this ... Our anchor tenants are committed and eager to come to town."

But despite the vote in developers' favor — and City Council members' rezoning of the park site in September 2016 — city staff and parks board members say they've heard little from the group Carney fronted.

"As far as I know, he hasn't been in contact with us," Caron said. "We plan to have softball out there (at the park on U.S. 259) for the entire year this year."

In comments posted to the online version of a recent News-Journal story about a potential city bond referendum for new public safety, street and parks construction, parks board member Bruce Williams wrote "The Hinsley debacle casts a large shadow on any current plans."

He explained his comment Friday, saying the waiting game has been "an albatross" since he joined the board in 2016.

"It's just there. Nothing is happening," Williams said.

Carney did not answer or return multiple calls Friday requesting comment or updates on the project.

'Bigger can of worms'

Meanwhile, Williams said residents and local groups are routinely peppering him with such questions about the Hinsley hold-up as, " 'Why is it this conundrum?' 'Why should we commit to something even more of a bigger can of worms?' and 'Can we resolve this situation?' "

"It's something that weighs on people's minds," he said. "It is something that people think about."

Board Chairwoman Laci McRee said she's also heard concerns that there hasn't been an update on the Hinsley Park process — from City Hall or elsewhere.

"If you go back and look at the minutes" of past board meetings," McRee said, "they said it was in contract negotiations, and that's all that I know."

Board members — particularly Alderman — ask Caron at meetings at least every two months whether there has been movement on Hinsley Park or Hinsley Crossing, the name of the proposed retail development that would replace the current park.

Alderman has a multifaceted interest in the process. He's also a member of the Longview Disc Golf Association, which uses an 18-hole disc golf course at Hinsley Park regularly for recreation or as the site of tournaments that attract competitors from multiple states.

The group had been promised a course would be included in construction of the new Hinsley Park. Now, Alderman said any update he has gotten from city staff "means less than nothing to me."

"We know that once everything is said is done as far as breaking ground, it would be a year at least before the city took hold of that property," he said, referring to the new park. He said there has been "a real shroud of lack of information over the whole process" that has left residents "confused and a little upset at the lack of progress."

Who's at fault?

When asked if his frustration lies solely with developers or in part with city staff, Alderman said he understands there are three entities involved in the process.

"It is a three-way handshake," he said, "and those are, from what I understand, very hard to do," though he added, "Who is stonewalling who at this point?"

Williams said he would like to see those in control of the process come before the parks board and answer questions about the project.

"Scott (Caron) can only do so much, and his hands are tied in the situation," Williams said.

McRee expressed a desire to see residents appear at parks board meetings — held at noon every fourth Monday at City Hall — and join in asking for updates.

"There just hasn't been any person show up to the meeting and ask for an update, so we have been asking for an update in our meetings," McRee said, "and when we ask for an update, they say they're still negotiating the contracts. I think that if there was a larger interest, there might be more pressure for an update."

His concern is the process dragging out with no information will have a negative effect eventually.

"This is a large project that takes time, and I have not heard negative feedback about the parks department or the parks board in regards to this process," McRee said. "But I think the implementation of the process can influence people's opinions."



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