In August 2020, when The Examiner revealed a year-long deal worked out among Jefferson County Commissioners to sell the Ford Park Entertainment Complex to a wanna-be casino owner out of Port Arthur without even knowing the appraised value of the public commodity was contrary to Texas law, that might have been a good time to rethink the trajectory of the transaction. When this newspaper then uncovered the proposed buyer – Kevin Johnson of Renaissance Development Group – had promised high expectations with a taxpayer-subsidized golfing green on Pleasure Island that now sits as a gated-up jungle sucking up cash and energy from the city of Port Arthur, it could have been yet another good time to rethink putting more public property in his hands. Or, when The Examiner featured a cache of financial and entrepreneurial failings attributed to Johnson and his Renaissance company that included Johnson and wife Patti Sepeda-Johnson filing bankruptcy, the Renaissance Development company he and his wife ran valued at $1 with the federal court system, and a string of debtors left high and dry – that, too, could have given pause to those interested in sparking new business deals with the “businessman” proven to talk a bigger game than he can deliver.
But, in truth, it wouldn’t be imperative for the elected officials of the Jefferson County Commissioners Court to know any of those things at all – had the group followed procurement practices as outlined in law designed to prevent the county from falling into faulty deals like the Ford Park sale debacle that has befallen Jefferson County for roughly the last three years.
Why the rush, though, to put the public’s investment in the pockets of a man that couldn’t even muster up the basic financial documents requested when the county first sought the August 2020 sale before The Examiner called shenanigans on the lack of appraised property value? Even knowing that Johnson couldn’t – or wouldn’t – produce the financial documents that would show he could actually afford to purchase one of the county’s biggest assets (and encumbrances), those that lead our community didn’t insist on such. Instead, the requirement to produce audited financials was removed when the county again put up notice of the Ford Park sale in September 2020.
The county spent a couple weeks securing a $38,000 appraisal of Ford Park that showed the value at roughly double what Johnson offered to pay for it, then put it up for sale again – with another quick turnaround time for bidders to come forward and make an offer.
By the end of 2020, the county was ready to unload Ford Park, its debt, and its maintenance off to the eager buyer; time had been of an essence, it seemed, for all involved parties. But, it was a hurry-up-and-wait game.
Month after month, “The check is in the mail.” But, there was no check. There was no financial assurance that Johnson had $22 million at his disposal. While Kevin Johnson, aka “KJ” to those he befriended at the Ford Park complex, has made promises of grandeur to his many investors, Ford Park employees, YMBL members, and the community as a whole, it seems KJ doesn’t have, nor has he ever had, the proverbial pot used to relieve oneself.
It was up to the county leaders to believe what they knew to be true instead of the pipe dreams of a man with a reputation for “magic bean” commerce. Now that the deal has been nixed after more than a year of waiting for a check that would never come – county commissioners have a chance to get it right this time. Stop treating Ford Park like an albatross around your neck, and start treating it like the $100 million taxpayer investment it is.
When a bidder shows you they can’t pay for the people’s property – believe them.