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The City of Grand Prairie, Texas Renews Search for Wildflower Resort Developer; The Latest
 Developer, Mercantile Capital Group, Backs Out Despite Paying $50,000
 to Negotiate With the City
By Jon Nielsen, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 19, 2008 - -One piece of land in Grand Prairie is debunking the adage that real estate is all about location. It's also about money.

A tract of land called the Estes Peninsula on Joe Pool Lake has been reserved for years as the site of a multimillion-dollar resort known as Wildflower.

Since Joe Pool Lake opened in 1989, a handful of developers have expressed interest. Several failed to get enough investors to sign on to the deal, one declared bankruptcy and another is serving time in federal prison for wire fraud and money laundering.

The latest developer -- Chicago-based Mercantile Capital Group -- backed out on the deal earlier this month despite paying $50,000 to negotiate with the city on the project. The firm's abandonment of what is now a $385 million idea has city leaders dealing with the reality.

"We've got to start all over," said Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England, disappointed with the news.

The mayor said the faltering economy and the fact that companies haven't raised enough capital have contributed to the failure to build the on-again, off-again project. The latest plans call for a 500-room hotel, a conference center and two 18-hole championship golf courses.

Mr. England said that, despite the setback, he's not prepared to downgrade the quality of the project, which he says would bring ancillary growth and upscale amenities to the area.

"I'm not willing to put anything less than a four-star hotel out there and a championship golf course," the mayor said. "We're not going to jump out there and do something that we wouldn't be proud of."

Grand Prairie leaders will visit with several developers who have expressed interest in the project in the past.

"We've got to go out and see what the market is like," economic development director Bob O'Neal said. "The city's obviously not a resort developer, so it's up to us to find a great partner to get this deal done."

Mr. England said the slumping economy could distract developers from building the expensive project. But one analyst said now could be as good a time as ever to get the development going.

"If you are an investor who believes in buying low, this perhaps is a good time," said Bharath Josiam, associate professor at the hospitality management program at the University of North Texas. "I'm sure if you were constructing today, you would get better deals on everything."

Building the resort now also means it could be ready to open when the economy starts to turn around, Mr. Josiam said.

He noted that the hospitality industry typically lags behind the economy.

Mr. England said he would be interested in starting out with a smaller, less-ambitious plan that left room for future resort expansion.

"It's one of the prime spots in the metroplex for a resort, conference center, hotel and golf course," Mr. England said.

The land, owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and leased by the city, sits on the banks of Joe Pool Lake with the Austin Escarpment as the backdrop. The escarpment is a North Texas anomaly that provides scenic overlooks of the flat prairie land, reminiscent of the Texas Hill Country near Austin.

As for now, the nearly 1,000 acres of peninsula looks as it did about 20 years ago.

It's still prime for development, the mayor says.

"That land's not going to go anywhere. We've got the location -- nobody's going to take that away from us."


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