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  • Writer's pictureTalia Hill

Fairmont owner backs off bid to buy Palm School property

The owner of the Fairmont hotel will not move forward on trying to buy the land around the nearby Palm School for a development after all, he told Travis County commissioners in a letter Tuesday afternoon.

Douglas W. Manchester, president of Manchester Texas Financial Group, told commissioners that a Monday news release announcing his desire to buy a portion of the county-owned property was sent out without his authorization. The release said Manchester would use the land surrounding the school for a potential commercial development, would leave the school in the county’s hands and would donate $5 million to its preservation.

His letter Tuesday said the news release was misleading, “making it seem like our conversations were much further along than they were.”

Manchester told commissioners he wanted to approach any process regarding the land in an appropriate way that would garner public support and that he wanted to follow Travis County’s lead.

“For these reasons, Manchester Texas Financial Group will not be moving forward with an unsolicited offer to buy the surplus land around the Palm School,” he wrote. “I believe that a solid path for Travis County to accomplish its goals may well be to entertain offers from the private sector, and I wish you all the best as you move forward with your deliberations and decisions.”

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, who was previously representing Manchester as an attorney working on the deal, said she was fired Tuesday due to the media coverage.

What to do with the Palm School and the property it sits on, near Cesar Chavez Street and Interstate 35, has been a recent topic of debate. The school was the second elementary school in Austin and operated from 1892 until 1976, serving East Austin residents and many Mexican-American students. In recent decades it has held Travis County health offices, which are moving to a new location.

Austin leaders have indicated they would like to acquire the property in order to incorporate the school and the land around it into an expansion of the nearby Austin Convention Center and development of a string of parks along Waller Creek. Travis County leaders have voted to require that the school be preserved and open to the public in perpetuity, but County Judge Sarah Eckhardt has made it clear she does not want to let the lucrative land go for too little.

Eckhardt first suggested that the county solicit proposals from Austin and private developers to weigh its sales options. More recently, she has proposed a land swap between Austin and Travis County of the Palm School for other downtown property and full ownership of the Exposition Center. She has said the Palm School property is worth $53 million.

Some Mexican-American advocates, who have pushed to keep the property fully in public hands, reacted with fury on social media to the idea of selling any land to Manchester. City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose downtown district includes the property, tweeted that she agreed with them that “Palm School and its site should be preserved.”

By Elizabeth Findell

Austin-American Statesman

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