On paper, Fort Worth’s Panther Island looks like a shiny urban oasis, rising from the banks of a rerouted Trinity River.
But for now, in reality, it’s an assembly of dirt piles and partially built bridges, all over dry land, with $400 million in federal funds still needed to complete the island.
Officials with the Tarrant Regional Water District, which helps oversee the massive project, expressed optimism that it will move forward, with the help of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX District 12), the Fort Worth Republican who is largely credited with bringing the federal dollars to the project.
“She’s as tough as they come, as smart as they come. And if she says the funding will be available, I will bet on the funding being available,” said Jim Lane, a TRWD board member and former Fort Worth City Council member.
But NBC 5 Investigates has learned Granger, who declined to comment on camera, faces an uphill battle, especially in Washington D.C., where the Panther Island project has been described by some in Congress as an example of government waste.
In 2016, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon lambasted the project, saying on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that: “Now deep in this bill is a line item that provides an authorization for an $810 million lavish waterfront development in Fort Worth, TX.”
That’s counter to what critics say the project should be about – a water management and flood control project to ensure that parts of Cowtown don’t wash away in the event of a downpour.
At the time, DeFazio pointed to glossy photos on the TRWD’s website as proof that Panther Island is more about fancy development than flood control, and doesn’t deserve millions of federal dollars from the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
DeFazio also said the Fort Worth project did not undergo a cost analysis from the Corp, a study required for other projects to ensure that federal flood control money is being spent wisely.
“Every other report in this bill had to go through an economic analysis by the Corp of Engineers and be found to be a net benefit to the taxpayers of the United States. This project did not,” he said.
NBC 5 Investigates has learned the same concerns were raised eight years earlier, by the Corp, in a memo from the assistant Secretary of the Army.
In that memo, the project was said to be “technically sound” and “environmentally acceptable,” but also “not compliant with administration policy…"
“None of the proposed work has been subject to an economic analysis …additionally, many of the project’s features provide recreational benefits which are not high priority,” the memo said.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan Washington watchdog group, told NBC 5 Investigates that U.S. tax dollars should not fund an entertainment district in Fort Worth.
Referring to Panther Island, Ellis said, “What you are seeing is really an economic development project masquerading as a flood control project.”
He also suggested the TRWD is avoiding a cost analysis study because it likely would not pass the test.
“If they really thought that this could stand scrutiny …they would do an economic analysis and they would stand on that…,” Ellis said.
The water district has said such a study has not been done because it was not required when Congress first authorized the project nearly 15 years ago.
But today, Panther Island is competing for federal funding against other Corp projects that have undergone that extra level of security.
Ellis said there is additional skepticism because Granger’s son, J.D. Granger, is in charge of the Panther Island, as executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority, an offshoot of the TRWD.
That, he said, “is clearly a concern and clearly a conflict of interest.”
Sources with direct knowledge told NBC 5 Investigates that congressional staff members in Washington have also questioned whether federal funds should go to a project run by a congresswoman’s son.
At a recent board meeting, NBC 5 Investigates attempted to ask J.D. Granger about whether he felt his relationship with his mother may be threatening future federal funding for Panther Island.
He initially declined to answer, instead pointing to a spokesman and saying, “He can handle those questions for you.”
Pressed further for a comment, J.D. Granger, before walking off, said: “So we have managed this project well over the last 12 years, and actually received funds in that period. So I think we are doing well.”