McNeil, who ousted toll critic for Chair of MPO, cozy with road builder, Zachry, since he gave $750,000 of projects to east side

Councilwoman Sheila McNeil marched into her first MPO Transportation Policy Board Meeting and demanded to be Chair. She exploited the City’s voting block (the City has two more appointees to the Board than the County) to oust her own County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson who was to succeed the City’s former Chair, Councilman Richard Perez. Read more about it here.

Follow the money…when a Zachry executive called McNeil’s district “the ghetto,” she managed to secure $750,000 in east side projects from Zachry as a reprisal. Now she’s rather cozy with the City’s most powerful business interest, Zachry, since she’s also taken campaign contributions from him. Considering his name was on the private bid to build San Antonio’s first toll projects, it explains her new-found pro-toll leanings rather nicely.

Link to the Express-News article on the $750,000 pay-off here.

Zachry trying to fix E. Side damage

Web Posted: 08/24/2005 12:00 AM CDT

Greg Jefferson
Express-News Staff Writer

Zachry Construction Corp. has agreed to give $750,000 to help lure jobs to the East Side, and to try to repair the firm’s reputation there several months after a company executive referred to the area as “the ghetto.”

District 2 Councilwoman Sheila McNeil pushed for the deal with Zachry, which is seeking $1 million in tax money for a planned hotel project near Sunset Station.

McNeil — who took office in June — said that without the agreement, the company’s bid for city assistance would not have her support.

“Based on what happened and the community’s reaction to it, I couldn’t,” she said. “This agreement helps me get behind the project and move it forward.”

Zachry, Sunset Station’s developer, agreed to contribute the money to the city for East Side economic development initiatives over three years.

McNeil “believed that we needed to demonstrate that we are committed to the East Side community, in addition to the investments we’ve made in the community over the years,” Zachry spokeswoman Vicky Waddy said.

The money, McNeil said, would flow to the East Side’s Community Economic Revitalization Agency, a nonprofit specializing in economic development that’s been criticized for producing few results.

McNeil is looking to retool CERA to draw development to areas that have seen precious little of it over the years. The $750,000 could propel that effort.

“That’s more than the operating budgets of most not-for-profits in town,” city Economic Development Director Ramiro Cavazos said.

Zachry originally sought $1.9 million from the Inner City Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone, which includes a broad slice of the East Side, for a planned Staybridge Suites hotel directly south of Sunset Station.

But TIRZ directors delayed a decision on the project after community activists railed against the company during a June 27 meeting.

They were angry about a Zachry employee’s now infamous e-mail during the mayoral runoff election between Phil Hardberger and Julián Castro.

Ken Wolf, then-vice president for Metropolitan Resources, a Zachry subsidiary, sent an e-mail in May urging friends and associates to support Hardberger.

In the message, he wrote that the SBC Center was built “in the ghetto” because of poor leadership in city government.

Wolf resigned from the company in June, and H.B. Zachry Jr., head of Zachry Construction, said in a letter to Castro he “regretted this incident.”

The TIRZ board revisited Zachry’s project Monday and agreed to advance it, along with six others, to the City Council for approval Thursday.

T.C. Calvert, president of the San Antonio Observer and an activist leader at the June 27 showdown, dismissed the deal with Zachry.

“This was an agreement that was worked out by the political people, by Sheila McNeil, and the community wasn’t involved,” said Calvert, who’s president of the Neighborhoods First Alliance. “To me, it’s like another slap in the face.”

McNeil, meanwhile, said an agreement spelling out terms of Zachry’s “partnership” must be finalized before the council takes up the company’s funding request; otherwise, it could be postponed. McNeil, a member of the TIRZ board, won support for the contingency Monday.

Zachry, which is planning a second development near Sunset Station, has a catch of its own.

“Our contributions are contingent on our projects going forward,” Waddy said.

As far as the hotel, that means tapping TIRZ dollars, as well as lining up private investors and working out a deal with a hotel operator.

Zachry Realty, a Zachry Construction subsidiary, is looking to develop the 13-story, 141-room hotel. Company officials say they need TIRZ funding to make the project attractive to investors, though they trimmed their request to $1 million. City staffers said the project was eligible for about $1.6 million.

The other $600,000 would go toward the creation of a “quiet zone” in the St. Paul Square/Sunset Square area, an initiative aimed at lessening noise from passing trains.

Zachry also plans to build condominiums in the area. The company wouldn’t seek TIRZ funding for the project, Waddy said, but it might apply for a property tax abatement.

She said Zachry’s contributions would go to the city, which is expected to direct the money to CERA, a recipient of city funding and federal Community Development Block Grants that fought for the creation of the Inner City TIRZ.

“We’re going to give it to the city and tell them we want it used for economic development on the East Side. How they use it is up to them,” Waddy said.

The pact, Cavazos said, sounded similar to Zachry’s agreement in 2001 to contribute $60,000 to an after-school program when it sought a controversial tax abatement for a new headquarters on the South Side.

According to McNeil, one of CERA’s first changes could be its name, to Center for Eastside Economic Development.

“That agency should be serving as a vehicle for economic development on the East Side,” McNeil said.