Now that the council’s economic development subcommittee has endorsed building AND owning AND operating the downtown convention center hotel (read the stories in the Observer here and the DMN here), instead of subsidizing a developer to the tune of a few hundred million dollars just to build it, I really have to wonder what is wrong with at least some of the people we elected to represent us. Because when you get right down to it, none of the reported alternatives for this project are good deals for those of us who live in Dallas and will have to pay the bill for what’s approved.
Without question, a recommendation from a few city council reps on the council’s economic development committee — after a couple hours of in-depth analysis — to own and operate a multi-hundred-million-dollar hotel (they don’t even know how much it would cost) has to be the single dumbest governmental decision I’ve heard in the 28 years I’ve been in Dallas. A decision to have the city own and operate a mega-hotel, competing against companies that have invested private dollars into their hotels and are paying city taxes, is not only bad business, it’s simply crazy (or "insanity" as recused council rep Mitch Rasansky described the deal).
We elected Tom Leppert mayor based largely on his repeated assertions that he was a business guy who knew what he was doing. (Look at his own website’s testimonial: "Tom will use his business-minded approach to get taxpayers more.") But what business CEO anywhere signs off on a $500 million-plus project that has no plans, no stand-alone financing and no operating budget — that’s the kind of thing that gets high-paid executives fired, as well it should. If he wants to build the hotel, why not lay out the entire vision to voters and seek consensus, rather than just wink and tell us to "trust him" while he rams the deal through the council before summer vacation?
And don’t forget we’re talking about city government ownership here, so an assistant city manager will ultimately be in charge of overseeing the hotel’s operations, hiring, marketing, etc. Do you get my drift? We’ll have a guy who’s a lifelong city employee pulling the levers in a marketing struggle against the Harlan Crows of the world — want to put any money on who might come out on top in deal like that? And any guesses who will be covering the losses when they inevitably occur?
Sam Merten and Jim Schutze at the Observer and Dave Levinthal, Steve Brown and Rudolph Bush of the Morning News have done some good reporting on this issue, and councilman Angela Hunt has done a good job of keeping the issue out-front and asking the questions that need to be asked.
And more information will come our way in the next week or two, I’m sure. At least, I hope. After all, the council has scheduled a vote for May 14 on the $41 million hotel land purchase we’ve already read so much about — another cart-before-the-horse deal if there ever was one. And according to media reports, the entire hotel project is scheduled for a vote sometime in June.
It’s just mind-boggling that in a matter of a few months, the people we elected to keep an eye on our tax dollars and repair our streets appear poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a publicly-owned hotel downtown.
I agree we need a "vision" for the city, and sometimes implementing a vision involves expensive choices. And there’s no question a downtown convention center hotel would help Dallas compete more effectively for meetings and conventions. No question that in some form or fashion, Dallas residents would support such a deal. And no question there’s a deal out there that would make sense for the convention and visitor’s bureau people, as well as for Dallas taxpayers. Effectively, that’s what we hired Leppert to do on our behalf: Sort through complicated business matters and make the best possible deal for our city.
But there’s no way this deal as set forth (the city owning and operating the whole thing) would be approved by voters, once people figured out the slipshod way this deal appears to have been put together. (No surprise, then, that the city attorney already has determined that no referendum is needed, either, and that the council can just spend the money on their own.)
It wouldn’t even surprise me if this latest vote is a "bait and switch" ploy, allowing Leppert to ride into the council chambers on his white horse, debunk the idea of the city owning the hotel and instead use that argument to show how maybe giving a developer several hundred million dollars is really a better deal for the city. That way, Leppert puts two distasteful alternatives on the table and, using a classic sales technique, gains support for one simply because it appears to be a better alternative than the other — even though both are bad for us.
Regardless, any council rep who votes to approve either plan as they stand needs to answer for it next May when it’s election time; that’s why it’s time we let our council reps know what we think about this deal so that when they’re considering whether to vote "yes" or "no" they’ve had some guidance from the people who will be paying this mortgage for the next 30 years.
I know I wouldn’t want to be standing in front of a neighborhood gathering explaining why I had "invested" $500 million or more in taxpayer money for a project based on a couple of outsider studies and some overgrown egos, while the road outside the meeting place is full of potholes, crime continues to increase, and tax collections are tumbling and causing city budget shortfalls and service cuts…