Houston establishment newspapers cheer on dinosaur park; local newspaper exposes boondoggle

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Second dino-park in Jasper sunk by savvy officials – Cynthia Calvert, The Tribune

On Nov. 9, 2006, the Houston Business Journal reported that Don Lessem, “a Philadelphia entrepreneur and nationally recognized dinosaur expert, [had] chosen southeast Montgomery County as the site of a proposed large scale tourist attraction.”

According to Lessem, “Southeast Montgomery County edged out the other finalist, [the City of] Red Oak (a Dallas suburb).” He further stated that civic leaders in the New Caney area, “[were] a more aggressive and accomplished group, [with] a personal sense of commitment.”

From that moment on, the excitement and anticipation of a major, Disney-caliber resort grew to a fever pitch.

Time and again, local politicians and civic leaders repeated the mantra that New Caney and southeast Montgomery County had been selected over all other regions in America, news that was almost too good to be true. In particular, the board of directors of the East Montgomery County Improvement District (EMCID) took the lead in promoting, and funding, the dream that all rural counties and municipalities long to embrace. In fact, EMCID incurred liabilities in excess of $21 million to ensure that thedream would become reality.

Despite that bit of cheerleading from a Houston business publication (and others), no Disney-like dinosaur park was ever built, despite millions of taxpayer dollars going… somewhere, in the pursuit of the great world-class dinosaur park boondoggle.

Be sure to click over and read the entire story, which is unsettling to say the least (and a good job of investigative reporting by the local newspaper).

And then click over and read this one:

EarthQuest fees mount – Cynthia Calvert, The Tribune

[T]he financial picture related here can only be considered a partial view of EMCID expenditures. The Tribune does have the cash flow statements for 2006-2011, American Express monthly statements for McCrady and office aide Suzanne Parmer from 2007-2011, detailed mileage reimbursement forms for Parmer, and EMCID employees Sandy Seelye, Warren Mather and Tom Lewis.

The Tribune looked at one year, 2009, for this article.

In 2009, McCrady’s and Parmer’s American Express bills together totaled $227,000, just a few thousand dollars shy of the entire amount of money funded by EMCID for college scholarships for every graduating senior in the district.

Several people seem to have made out very well on the great world-class dinosaur park that never was going to be. Heck, we’d be hard pressed to argue that Frank “Procurement Disaster” Wilson made out better than some of these fraudsters!

As Cynthia Calvert asks in the first Tribune article above, “Where were the gatekeepers to the public trust when it was needed most?”

For that matter, where were more skeptical journalists? The Tribune has done a number of recent stories on this topic (see this, and this, and this), none of them very flattering to public officials or the boondoggle purveyors. True to form, the Chronicle was still in cheerleader/press-release-reporting mode just a couple of weeks ago regarding the project. Someone may need to nudge the Houston Business Journal and let them know they need to revisit their past cheerleading (especially this), since we were not able to find any recent updates from them.

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX