The Dallas City Council will hold off on its previously planned Nov. 10 vote on a land lease at 12000 Greenville for the City of Refuge Dallas, Inc. project.

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In a memo sent to council members Thursday City Manager T.C. Broadnax said he wanted to remove the item at the request of Bruce Deel, founder of Atlanta-based City of Refuge who also is heading the redevelopment plan for the Lake Highlands project.

By phone from Atlanta, Georgia, Deel says he is not pulling out of the project altogether, just pulling back. He did not seem to have a specific plan for moving forward, though he says he would be happy to talk more if the project proceeds down the road.

“We’ve had a really good relationship for the past year with Dallas City Council, which voted 14-0 twice to move the project forward,” he says. “And then as we approach this vote on the land lease, there were some issue raised by some council members — which are fair. They seem to have some concerns and we felt like the waters have been stirred a bit more. We just didn’t want a public controversy, and we want to be able to resolve those things before it goes to a vote publicly.”

Bruce Deel

He says he figured the best route was to “take a breather,” and “see what happens in the future.”

Said concerns raised at a City Council Special Economic Development Session involve Councilman Chad West repeating an earlier misgiving regarding the process by which City of Refuge was selected to oversee this project.

In the early stages, Dallas-based Bonton Farms — which operates a well-known urban farm in South Dallas dedicated to “disrupting inequity” and laying ground for disenfranchised populations — was a partner in the project along with the faith-based City of Refuge. In fact the Lake Highlands project initially was called Bonton Village at Lake Highlands.

But Bonton pulled out of the project. The farm’s founder Daron Babcock told the Morning News in January that he had just taken on too much, and the Lake Highlands project would pull attention away from South Dallas.

West said in an email to Council that when Bonton exited the project, it would have been appropriate to issue a request for proposal from other organizations interested in involvement with the project, as is outlined in the City’s Procurement Process.

Not only does that process give other foundations an opportunity for involvement, but also, just as importantly, it requires those bidding on the project to present considerable documentation related to their viability.

At least, West wrote in an Oct. 5 email to Council, City of Refuge should be required to fulfill the same due diligence requirements as any other nonprofit bidding on the project.

“Perhaps it would bring comfort and clarity to City leaders to obtain information that would have been collected through an RFP, including a plan for sustainability, policy and practice documents, non‐discrimination statements, race/ethnicity information on staff/board and the like.”

Deel says, “If that’s the right piece of property and there seems to be an appetite for us to be there, if that’s part of the journey — to do an RFP — we’re open to the conversation. I can’t commit to that, but we’re open to the conversation.”

It is worth noting that City of Refuge is not a faith-based company on paper, according to Deel, however, he says he is “a man of faith” and “that is well known.” Services revolving around religion are offered but not required at any City of Refuge. There also have been indications that City of Refuge is in a business partnership with Watermark Church, which has garnered publicity for its anti LGBTQ+ ideals. However Deel says City of Refuge is in no affiliation with any local church including Watermark.

He explains how that idea got out there, saying, “Three, maybe two and a half years ago, one of our staff was there in Dallas and opened a conversation with Watermark about the continual partnership, and that didn’t work out. No animosity. It just wasn’t a good fit. We moved entirely away from that conversation at least 24 months ago.”

Another significant concern was related to funding the project and the absence of identifiable funding commitments.

West says local service providers typically submit 100-plus pages of documentation on every RFP even when they are a known entity and City partner for many years.

“It would certainly seem like a justified requirement, particularly given the absence of a local track record and current financial resources.”

West says he “presumes this would provide great specificity on the individuals who will be serving in key local management and fundraising roles.”

He adds, “It would seem prudent to request that Refuge Dallas Lake Highlands engage a reputable Dallas based fundraising consultant to investigate and report on the feasibility of achieving its fundraising projections.”

The land at 12000 Greenville in 2019 was considered for a permanent supportive housing project that would have housed at least 100 people. The project was staunchly opposed by both neighborhood residents and D10 councilman Adam McGough, who already had a vision for the property —  he was already pre-planning City of Refuge. The City of Refuge proposals offer about 50 houses along with what its advocates call wraparound services — workforce innovation, an urban farming project, programming for sex trafficking survivors and more.

Even before this came up earlier this week, Councilman Adam McGough acknowledged in an interview “there’s some issues we just got to work through Council that we’re having issues with it being city land — is there going to be a faith based component to it? How involved is my role, you know am I too involved?”

McGough did pose questions about his role early on, asking the City attorney Chris Caso via email about the potential conflict of interest should he go on to accept a paid position at City of Refuge. Those emails were used to cast some further doubt on the project this week.

One thing is certain, the area in question, 12000 Greenville, is in dire need of affordable and supportive housing and related services. In fact we have a special report coming out tomorrow about the high concentration of evictions in this very section of the city.

This is a developing story so be on the lookout for updates.