The racer's edge

Hunt alliance gives weaker track developer big edge

Which promptly brought Ray Hunt out of the negotiating closet--into the harsh, uncompromising light of pesky citizen scrutiny. And, thanks to his overeager errand boy, Mayor Steve Bartlett, and the overly Hunt-enthralled city staff, it's turning into a beautiful catfight.

Dallas city councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw knew from the beginning of this deal that something was very wrong.

One day in December, while she was talking to a real estate agent about some land near her neighborhood in south Oak Cliff, she stumbled upon the news that somebody had an option on an enormous tract in her district that, if developed as intended, would bring 3,000 jobs into the area.

Crenshaw was stunned. Why didn't she know about this? Certainly somebody at city hall had to know this. So Crenshaw began calling around --to the mayor, for example. "He told me it was confidential," Crenshaw recalls. "And I couldn't believe it. I mean, here it was my district, my neighborhood, and he wouldn't tell me what was coming here--was it a lead smelter, a manufacturing plant, a choo-choo train factory? I told him he better damn well tell the people who lived out here what it was." So he told her: it was Bruton Smith's racetrack.

Excited at the possibilities--this was, after all, the biggest development flirtation the southern sector had ever had--Crenshaw began talking to Ray Ballard and his partner Mike Rader about Smith's plans. And she began to see, immediately, that the plans were going nowhere.

Bartlett was backing Meyer, period. "He kept telling me, 'we've already got a racetrack being built--it's a bird in the hand,'" Crenshaw said.

As for the rest of the council, only Stimson understood the issue--he had been working with Billy Meyer, George Schrader, and Woodbine chairman John Scovell since shortly before their hurried November press conference.

As one might expect, Stimson was playing cheerleader for Pinnacle Park, just as Crenshaw was for Interstate 20--normal political jousting between politicians interested in bringing home the bacon.

What was not normal was the stance of the mayor, who should have been a neutral player, opening his arms to any and all takers. Bartlett not only wouldn't embrace Smith, he flat-out offended him.

According to Smith, he had told the mayor in confidence during their first-ever conversation the Wednesday before Smith's Monday press conference that he was coming to Dallas to formally announce his intention to build a new racetrack in Dallas. Smith says he even told Bartlett the sites he was serious about.

"Well, he didn't keep it in confidence," Smith says. "We heard on Saturday that Meyer was going to have a press conference on Sunday, and I called all over Dallas trying to find the mayor--he had given me his home number and his car number and all his numbers--and I never got him to call me back until 5:30 on Sunday, after the press conference. It was a cheap shot."

Bartlett has said publicly that he and Smith never discussed a press conference--a fact that Smith emphatically denies--and, anyway, Bruton's press conference plans had been in The Dallas Morning News on Thursday morning for all to see.

Bartlett insists he's never favored one racetrack developer over another--that he embraced Meyer merely because he was the first to commit to building in Dallas.

Regardless, it was clear to everybody that Bartlett had taken sides. His favorite hired-gun spin doctor, PR consultant Lisa LeMaster, had arranged the press conference. Today she's the official spokesperson for the Meyer team. (Unlike Smith, who gave easy access to the Observer and granted two phone interviews from Charlotte for this story, Meyer, who I met at city hall last week, refused to be interviewed unless I submitted written questions in advance to LeMaster.)

Bartlett has continued his Smith-snubbing with great abandon. For one thing, he never showed up--though he was invited--at Smith's press conference the following Monday. Nor did he show up at a party given that evening in Smith's honor at Drew Pearson's Sports 88 Grill in North Dallas. (In fact, on January 5, the only time Bartlett ever met Smith--supposedly to sit down with city staff and chamber of commerce officials to negotiate a deal--Bartlett walked out in the middle of the meeting, citing important "mayor business.")

But there have been other, more formidable problems than just the mayor playing favorites.

"Back in early December, Bruton Smith was saying he couldn't even get a phone call returned from city staff," recalls Crenshaw. "So I went to Cliff Keheley and asked why he wasn't working with Bruton Smith."

Keheley, who is first assistant city manager, was in charge at the time, in City Manager John Ware's month-long absence for cancer treatments. "Keheley told me that Dallas already had a racetrack--Billy Meyer's," Crenshaw said. "And that he had already been working with Meyer for four-and-a-half months, and he was a local boy, and all of a sudden here comes somebody from out of state at the last minute saying they're looking at Dallas."

Keheley says the councilmember's account is only "partially correct."
"We said we were not adverse to dealing with Smith, but we would not deal with him and disregard the Meyer group," he told me.

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