New numbers don't add up for Irving entertainment center

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by BRETT SHIPP

WFAA

Posted on July 20, 2011 at 10:25 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 20 at 10:44 PM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

IRVING — The dream of a massive entertainment center complex in Irving has been all but dashed.

Irving City Council members learned Wednesday the city is more than $100 million short of being able to afford the Las Colinas Entertainment Center as originally proposed.

The problems began late last year after News 8 started asking questions about the project.

Several million dollars in taxpayer money was spent on limos, booze, high-dollar hotel rooms... even a driver for the project's developer.

Now those problems seem insurmountable as the city learns it is about $100 million short of what it needs to build the project.

The Las Colinas Entertainment Center was billed to be the next great economic engine for the City of Irving after the Dallas Cowboys moved to Arlington. It was envisioned as a $250 million complex of restaurants and bars anchored by a concert hall.

But when News 8 raised questions about how and with whom $22 million in pre-construction costs were being spent, the project came to a halt.

An outside audit then discovered $4 million in questionable expenses.

Then — just a few weeks ago — Beth Van Duyne was elected as the city's new mayor.

"I think it is totally within our purview and our responsibilities as representatives of the city to make sure that we are spending taxpayers’ dollars appropriately," Mayor Van Duyne said during the Irving City Council briefing session on Wednesday.

Not only is Van Duyne calling for a fraud audit of past project expenses, she wants to know if the city even afford the project.

The answer, according to financial advisors: Of the $200 million the city was to borrow to build the project, only about $65 million is actually available.

"That tells me we don't have the money to build this project, the current scope,” Van Duyne said. “We do not have the money to build this current project.”

And Van Duyne is not alone.

Council member Joe Phillip has said for weeks the project is no longer affordable.

Council member Rick Stopfer says the new figures are sobering. "But if they want to proceed with this $250 million project, and we've got $65 million, that means someone has to come up with $185 million if they want to proceed at this level," Stopfer said.

That someone would have to be project developer Billy Bob Barnett, who has yet to come up with the $50 million in equity he has already pledged toward the Entertainment Center.

The final nail in the project's coffin could come Thursday night when Council members are expected to vote on whether to appeal a ruling that blocks their access to the state mixed beverage tax.

If the city votes to drop that appeal, then they effectively abandon all hope that the $250 million Entertainment Center project will ever be built.

E-mail bshipp@wfaa.com

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