Dallas Vies for 2013 Fraternal Order of Police Convention

I’ve spent the last few days in Long Beach, California, which is hosting the bi-annual convention of the Fraternal Order of the Police. The FOP is a national organization of law enforcement officials. Dallas’ FOP has been working for two years to bring the convention to our city in 2013, and the 3000+ FOP delegation will make the decision on Thursday. Dallas is competing against Cincinnati, Louisville, and Virginia Beach.

In January, I joined DPD officer and Dallas FOP executive board member, Fred Mears, and Dena Rambo of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, as we gave the national FOP officers a tour of Dallas’ police headquarters. Fred’s been working tirelessly to bring the convention to Dallas, which would be terrific for Dallas’ economy. I’ve been working with the Dallas FOP and the convention center to ensure we could bring the best deal possible to the table.

I was really impressed with the regional cooperation and statewide support Dallas received. Richardson, DART, Fort Worth and others have stepped up to help lure the FOP to Dallas. And the FOP lodges across Texas have been really working the delegates here at the convention, encouraging them to vote for Dallas.

On Monday, I met with Dena from the DCVB and DPD officer Mike Walton, president of the Dallas FOP. Mike has been working his butt off, campaigning every possible minute. We discussed our presentation for Wednesday (each city vying for the 2013 convention gives a ten minute presentation to the entire delegation).

On Tuesday, I spent the day at our convention hall booth with Dallas’ 20-member delegation. We were working hard to sell the delegates on Dallas. We had two main points. First, the entire delegation would be in just 3 downtown hotels, all close to the convention center (including the convention center hotel) and connected by light rail. This was a big selling point because the group is usually spread out across whatever city they’re in. This has been especially true in Long Beach, where some of us (the Texas delegation) are 10 miles from the convention center. Second, Dallas is economical. The three hotels have agreed to offer the prevailing federal per diem rate, which is $115 right now. None of the other cities could beat that.

Last night, Dena, Mike and I got together to prepare our presentation. We worked on it about 4 hours, and I think it paid off. Today, we made our presentation to the whole delegation (I’ll post the video shortly).

This has been such a great group to work with. I can’t say enough good things about the DPD officers I’ve gotten to know on this trip, and Dena from the DCVB could not be a better cheerleader for our city.

Tomorrow, the delegation will vote on the host city for 2013. I’ll give everyone an update on the results. Keep your fingers crossed.

(FYI — I didn’t spend any taxpayer funds on this trip; it was paid for by the FOP and out of my campaign funds.)

Statler-Hilton Tour

I’m not a huge fan of mid-century modern architecture.  It’s always seemed a little kitschy and plain to me.  The traditionally-designed Adolphus, the Magnolia, the Kirby, those buildings have style and class to spare.  But I’ve gotta say, mid-century modern is growing on me.  It’s still not my favorite, but I’m starting to appreciate the clean lines and blocks of color.  It’s something.  It’s the Jetson’s vision of the future made real (only without the jet-packs, air-cars, or robots, unfortunately).

The Statler Hilton (aka, Dallas Grand) is the quintessential mid-century modern building, with its blue glass paneled facade and Sinatra lounges.  Last week, I toured the building with Karl Zavitkovsky, Director of Economic Development for the city, and the style grew on me a little more.

As you’ll see in the pictures, the building needs some love.  But it has great bones and lots of cool mid-century flourishes.  I don’t know the structural integrity of the building, what it’d cost to do asbestos abatement, HVAC expenses, etc.  But aesthetically, the Statler’s no worse off than the Merc or Atmos buildings.  And the view is amazing.

I’ve heard again and again from developers that the eight foot ceilings are the killers — they’re just too low for today’s marketplace.  But the configuration of the rooms, combined with the wall of windows, make the ceilings seem higher than eight feet, and the rooms don’t feel small or cramped at all.

Imagine Main Street Garden is done, the UNT Law School has moved into the municipal courts building, and the modern streetcar is up and running on Commerce (with its mate on Elm).  The Statler could be one of the coolest addresses in Downtown.

(And I didn’t wear the cool headgear throughout the tour — only in the stairwells and basement where it was dusty and/or smelly.)

Trip to Portland and Seattle – Streetcars and Bicycle Infrastructure

Councilmember Koop and I traveled to Portland and Seattle last weekend to tour each city’s streetcar system and bicycle infrastructure. Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez (who oversees economic development) and Jay Kline (DART’s streetcar coordinator) joined us.

Both cities have used streetcars as economic catalysts, allowing considerable mixed-use development in depressed areas. The Pearl District in Portland is a great example. Only a few years ago, it was a run-down, crime-ridden warehouse district. Today, it’s a vibrant, clean, mixed-use community with businesses and residences. Continue reading

Vote YES on Prop 1 and NO on Prop 2

I’m voting YES on Proposition 1 because I am concerned with the risk to Dallas taxpayers. Proposition 1 will prohibit the city from owning a convention center hotel, as the Mayor has proposed.

In theory, the hotel would be able to pay for itself through its own revenue. But if the hotel doesn’t meet the Mayor’s rosy projections for occupancy, taxpayers get stuck with the bill. So I am voting YES on Proposition 1.

I am voting NO on Proposition 2, which will essentially call for a referendum whenever the city provides more than $1 million in financial incentives for a development.

There are areas of our city that need incentives to convince developers to build there, and developers won’t stick around for a public vote. They’ll simply go elsewhere — Las Colinas, Irving, McKinney — where they can get the same incentives without waiting months for a vote. Bottom line is, Prop 2 has the potential to make Dallas non-competitive and seriously damage our city’s ability to provide reasonable economic incentives to businesses.

On another website, someone posted “So many things would have to go wrong for this hotel to use taxpayer funds.” Not really. Just missing a mortgage payment could force the city to dip into taxpayer debt.

While the hotel debt is initially secured by hotel revenue, it is also secured by taxpayer dollars. Apparently, the market didn’t feel comfortable betting solely on the hotel, so it required additional security — in the form of taxpayer funds. So here’s how it works:

The city’s going to borrow $550 million for the hotel: $500 million to build it and $50 million to set aside in a rainy day fund (the “reserve account”). The reserve account protects bondholders so they know they’ll get repaid — the city can dip into this reserve account if the revenues for the hotel aren’t enough to repay the debt.

If it ended there, I’d be supporting the city-owned hotel, but it doesn’t. The reserve account has to stay at $50 million to satisfy bondholders. Guess who has to keep the reserve account full? Well, if the hotel doesn’t have enough money to pay its mortgage, it surely won’t be able to refill the reserve account. So that will fall on taxpayers. It’s really not that complicated, or that unlikely.

This city-owned hotel is a gamble, and in this economy, it doesn’t make sense for the city to be putting taxpayers at risk.

Whole Foods – The Real Story

I was troubled recently when Whole Foods announced that it was withdrawing its proposal to build a new store on the old Lakewood Minyards site, and instead was going to reuse the old building. What troubled me was that Whole Foods seemed to blame the the neighborhood and plan commissioners for the decision.

See, Whole Foods couldn’t build their new store with the current zoning standards, so they had to get a zoning change. Like any zoning change, the process involved meetings with the neighborhood and the area’s plan commissioners. The process is inclusive, but not excessively onerous.

After a number of meetings, Whole Foods announced two weeks ago that they had decided not to build a new store because of the so-called challenging and lengthy zoning process.

I wante d to set the record straight. I spoke with Whole Foods’ Seth Stutzman two days before they publicly announced their decision, and he explained that after they got into the zoning case, they did a cost comparison of building a new store versus redoing the old Minyards store. They were shocked to see that the redo would cost $4.5M less than a new store. It would also allow for a more environmentally-friendly store.

I asked Seth, if the zoning change sailed through, would they consider constructing the new building? He said probably not, because of the significant cost savings.

I don’t begrudge Whole Foods’ business decision. What bothers me is their attributing their decision to the “onerous” zoning process when the real reason for their decision is financial.

Whole Foods tried to clarify their position, but never explained it to the media as clearly as Seth did to me. So I wanted everyone to have the benefit of this information.

I liked the proposed new store, but I’m sure that Whole Foods’ redo will be great. I’m thrilled they’re coming to Lakewood, and I’m excited about a “green” store. I just want to make sure our inclusive zoning process is not blamed for a business decision.

Council Approves Tax Abatement for Medline Industries

Today the City Council approved a tax abatement for Medline Industries in Mountainview (District 3). The abatement is 75% for 7 years, for a total of $879,530 forgone. Medline is going to expand its warehousing facility and hire additional employees.

I am becoming more and more cautious in approving tax abatements, which reduce the amount of property taxes a company pays to the city. (Sometimes other taxing entities — county, DISD, the community college district — join in; usually they don’t.) I will go into my philosophy at a later date, but wanted to explain my thoughts on this particular abatement.

We need to use tax abatements sparingly, and when we do, we need to use them to encourage particular economic ends. Such as improving the lives of people who live in South Dallas. Again and again we talk about economic development in the Southern Sector, but what does that really mean if it’s not focused on improving the everyday lives of the people who live there?

During our discussion today, I asked Medline how many of their employees live in Dallas. Their representative said about 45%. I also asked the Medline representative what kind of jobs they held, and he said mostly warehouse jobs.

I would like to see our businesses, particularly those in South Dallas, hire people who live in South Dallas. Let’s give them jobs and take care of our residents.

I pointed out that while I would support this tax abatement (because it can stimulate the economy in South Dallas and because they employ Dallas residents), I want to see an EMPLOYEE RESIDENCY requirement in future tax abatements. I talked with our attorneys, and we’ve done it in the past and can do it again. If a company wants US to invest in THEM (by allowing them to forego paying property taxes), then THEY should be willing to invest in US by hiring Dallas residents.

The Mayor obliquely criticized the idea of creating residency requirements, claiming that the marketplace is too competitive to place “additional restrictions” on the companies receiving tax abatements. I couldn’t disagree more, but will elaborate in another blog.

The tax abatement passed unanimously.

Why the City Needs to Support Urban Market

On Wednesday, the City Council will vote on whether to provide a loan of $550,000 to Downtown’s only grocery store — Urban Market — to keep the store open. Private investors would match that amount.

So why should the city subsidize this business? Four reasons.

First, in 2001 the city REQUIRED that the developer who renovated the Interurban Building put in a grocery store in order to get historic tax abatements to rehab the vacant, dirty building. That’s right. The developer didn’t come up with the grocery store idea, the City did. The City knew exactly how many apartments and condos were going to be built over the next few years, what the surrounding population would be to support the market, and knew that it would be hard for the grocery store to scrape by. But the City saw the grocery store as a necessary amenity to lure residents to Downtown. Now that the City required this significant investment, it would be wrong to shrug and say, “Oops, sorry it didn’t work out.”

Second, Downtown business leaders and developers are stepping up and putting in money of their own. They understand the Market is a huge draw for new residents, and an important amenity for those already there. Losing the Market could impair developers’ ability to sell units. They have seen the population growth expected for Downtown over the next couple of years, recognize that it will likely be able to sustain the market in two years, and they’re willing to make that investment. If the private sector steps up and believes that this project is indispensable to Downtown, the City should step up as well, considering we’re the ones who mandated it.

Third, if Dallas is going to meet its goal of tripling the population of Downtown over the next several years, the City MUST support “meat and potatoes” businesses in Downtown. It’s the little things, like grocery stores, that help transform a group of city blocks into a neighborhood. The Council’s Economic Development Committee has requested that city staff focus less on high-end, esoteric shops in Downtown as it has done in the past, and more on residential necessities like drycleaners, grocery stores, and other neighborhood shops. Time and time again, residents tell me how important the Market is to their experience of living Downtown, and we need to support one of the pioneering stores at this crucial time.

Fourth, the Market opened to great fanfare. It was to be a harbinger of great things to come for Downtown Dallas. Letting it close now would send a signal that our Downtown is stumbling.

As more residents populate Downtown in the next two years, they’ll bring their dollars with them and help make the Market self-sustaining. It’s also important to keep in mind that the City and the private investor group will have the authority to approve and oversee the Market’s operator, will have financial oversight, and will reevaluate the Market’s financials in a year to make sure we’re on track. If not, we won’t continue to financially support the Market, and will have only invested $225,000.

A strong, vibrant Downtown is the key to a strong, vibrant city. Our Downtown is at a critical stage in its infancy. It’s still a toddler struggling to stand on its own, and there will be times when we have to intervene to support it. Now is one of those times. For a small investment, we can keep the doors open for this important Downtown amenity that has become a symbol of Downtown revitalization.