Mayor Betsy Price’s announcement that she would not run for re-election intensified speculation not only about her political future but also about the future of the most controversial unfinished project of her tenure.

Panther Island is at the center of dueling endorsements in the Fort Worth mayor’s race.

Price endorsed Mattie Parker, her former chief of staff and Congresswoman Kay Granger’s former campaign manager and district director. However, Granger endorsed council member Dr. Brian Byrd, a move seen as intensifying the rift between one-time allies.

“I frankly think I got caught in the crossfire,” Parker said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report. “There’s a reason why Kay endorsed Brian, right? And that’s not an attack on him at all. I’m just saying simply that I think Congressman Granger, because of the conflict between she and Betsy, has a fear that the mayor’s administration possibly under me would be persona non grata about what she wants to do or what she wants to fight for, and that’s not the take I’m having.”

Tensions about Panther Island flow from federal funding not coming through for the project as promised. As a flood control project, Panther Island was supposed to reroute a 1.5 mile-stretch of Trinity River just north of the Tarrant County Courthouse to prevent flooding like what happened there in 1949 and 1989. It also represents an opportunity to create 12 miles of public urban waterfront in the heart of Fort Worth, a prospect that has private investors and the city salivating.

Some have directed criticism for the funding woes at Granger’s son, J.D., executive director of the Trinity River Vision Authority. They fear the city of Fort Worth will be left with a massive bill for a project that helps private investors more than taxpayers.

“I never said this was about her son’s work. I said this was about how we spent 18 years with no funding and, at some point, we have to address that,” Price said in an interview with the Fort Worth Report. “If JD, if her son being there is part of the obstacle, then everything has to be looked at.”  

Although Granger is a ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, federal earmarks that would have benefited Panther Island ended in 2011. In 2016, Congress authorized the project to receive $526 million by passing the Water Resources Development Act. But that money, too, never made its way downstream to Fort Worth. 

Mayoral candidates agree on need

Construction of a bridge on White Settlement Road
Construction of a bridge on White Settlement Road that is part of the Trinity River Vision Project. (3/31/21 Fort Worth Report Rodger Mallison)

The top contenders for mayor agree Panther Island must be finished; they just differ on what should be done in the meantime. 

Parker, like Price, thinks the local governmental entities involved in the project should partner with business to get it done while Deborah Peoples thinks preventing flooding should take priority over any potential economic development.

“While people are having petty squabbles, people have actually died in flooding in Fort Worth, Texas, and the reason I got so engaged in it is I live on the east side, and about three years ago a woman and her child drowned,” Peoples said.

Byrd has not offered details about what he plans to do as mayor to move Panther Island forward – only that he didn’t promise Granger anything in exchange for her endorsement. Fort Worth Report called Granger’s office to request a phone interview and was told to email her communication director, Michelle Koepp. Koepp did not respond by the publication deadline.

Other key race

Residents are electing a mayor at the same time they’ll be selecting three of the five seats on the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District. Leah King, an incumbent on the board running for re-election, said the two entities need each other and must be transparent with the public going forward. 

“People only see these bridges and detours and rerouting. They don’t know about the millions of cubic feet of remediation in dirt that’s been hauled off. The district needs to better educate and tell its own story and whether it’s perceived as positive or negative, it’s our responsibility to be sharing that information with the public,” she said.

Water board candidates James Hill, an incumbent, and challenger C.B. Team share King’s platform of pushing for transparency about the Panther Island project.

Price’s accomplishments

Regardless of the outcome for Panther Island, Price has a bright political future ahead, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston

The path from mayor to higher office is well-traveled. Granger served as Fort Worth’s mayor from 1991 to 1995. Beth Van Duyne also went from being mayor of Irving to Congress now, and Kel Seliger, the former mayor of Amarillo, is in the state Senate. 

“She’s a conservative-leaning mayor of a purple city so that’s something Republicans would like to see, especially because she’s a woman, and she has a record of getting things done. It could be lieutenant governor. It could be governor. Land commissioner or controller would also be appropriate,” Rottinghaus said. 

Price said she doesn’t have plans to pursue higher office but hasn’t ruled it out.

“I wasn’t looking for this job. The mayor’s job came looking for me when I was tax assessor. The same thing may happen this time. God has a way of putting plans in front of you that you’re not expecting,” she said.

Betsy Price

Age: 71

Occupation: Elected in 2011 as Fort Worth’s 44th and current mayor

Education: University of Texas at Arlington

Relevant experience: Prior to being elected mayor, Price ran a car title and licensing company for 17 years and was elected as Tarrant County’s tax-assessor in 2000

Family: Married to Tom Price with three children, Kathryn Price, Paul Price and Phillip Price

Hobbies: Avid cyclist who enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren

Price wanted to be known as the people’s mayor, preferring to meet with constituents on a bike or over coffee than from behind a desk. 

She’s most proud of leaving Fort Worth in better shape physically and financially. 

In 2014, the city engaged with more than 15% of its population 15 and older and more than 330 worksites, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, organizations and faith-based communities to improve Fort Worth’s overall well-being. This was known as the Blue Zones Project

During  the next four years, while the nation’s overall well-being declined, Fort Worth’s rose. Specifically, it went from 58.8 to 62.5 on the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index. Smoking also dropped by 31.1% and people exercising half an hour or more three days a week rose by 16.8%.                                              

On the financial side, her office worked to lower the city’s pension obligation not once, but twice. She said Fort Worth handling its pension crisis on its own terms is something it should be proud of because the Texas Legislature intervened in other cities.

“It allowed us to have the services a growing city needs and lower the tax rate 11 cents in the last five years,” Price said.

She said she’d also stack Fort Worth’s response to recent disasters against other cities. She said that’s because Fort Worth put money in the hands of small business owners affected by the pandemic and water bottles into the hands of residents who lost water amidst the historic weather. 

At her last state of the city address in February, Price displayed a chart showing the city gave $55 million, or about 34% of the total amount it received from the CARES Act, to small businesses. She said that was “head and shoulders” above most other major U.S. cities.
The completion of the Panther Island project won’t be the crowning achievement of Price’s 10 years in office, but she says that doesn’t overshadow all of the other progress in Fort Worth.

“This isn’t about Kay. This isn’t about Panther Island. Yes, it’s a big piece of the city, but it’s a minute piece of what I do on a day-to-day basis,” Price said.

She predicts continued prosperity for the city and hopes that whoever comes after her wants to be the people’s mayor as well.

“It’s a political office, clearly, but you come to serve the city and the residents and you have to be about the service,” Price said.

Snapshot of Price’s accomplishments

Here is a list of projects her office cites as major accomplishments:

  • Supported the reorganization and creation of city departments, such as neighborhood services, development services, office of the police monitor, diversity and inclusion, and planning and data analytics
  • Launched Fort Worth’s first initiative to foster deeper engagement from those under the age of 40, SteerFW
  • Led effort to establish the Fort Worth Police Department’s first crisis intervention team to prioritize the health and well-being of all residents interacting with police, especially those in the middle of a mental crisis
  • Worked with both public and private partners to redevelop, protect and improve the Fort Worth Stockyards
  • Implemented the city’s first 3-foot buffer law to protect cyclists from motorists
  • Launched Read Fort Worth, which asked businesses and community leaders to support literacy among young public school children, with the goal of having all third graders reading on grade level by 2025
  • Oversaw growth at DFW airport, including an increase in international daily flights (67) and becoming the first carbon neutral airport in the world

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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