The racer's edge

Hunt alliance gives weaker track developer big edge

Meyer, however, was not ready to deal. He had not designed his track; he had not put together any numbers to give to the city. So Crenshaw put together an unusual resolution, passed by the council on December 14, forcing the city staff to stop jeopardizing an enormous economic-development project by playing favorites--and talk to Bruton Smith.

"The city manager is hereby directed to work with any entity that proposes to construct a NASCAR facilities within the corporate limits of Dallas..." the resolution states. "...the city of Dallas will offer the same level of incentives equally to all persons interested in developing a NASCAR facility in the city of Dallas."

Still, nothing happened. Smith produced cost estimates for the project, including the city's estimated share of infrastructure costs. But the city staff would not respond. No incentives were offered. Nothing.

Says Crenshaw: "When I asked what the holdup was this time, Keheley told me that because we had the word 'equally' in the resolution, it prevented them from entering negotiations with Smith because Meyer didn't have his numbers ready. They couldn't offer 'equal' incentives until they knew what Meyer wanted."

Keheley confirms this.
Crenshaw was furious. And the only remedy she had to halt such stalling was another resolution--another stab at forcing the city staff to do its job. "We get these smirks on their faces, which indicate to me they just love jerking us around," she says of the city staff. "We can't fight them because we're only part-time, and we don't have the power in the charter anyway, and they know that. Fielding and [councilman Don] Hicks warned me--they said, 'You just wait and see. They lie like you know what.' And it's true."

Last Wednesday, Crenshaw got her second resolution passed--this one again ordering city staff to stop playing politics. "...[T]he city manager is hereby directed to begin immediate and simultaneous negotiations with any party interested in developing a NASCAR facility in the city of Dallas..." the resolution stated.

But the city staff is clearly intent on continuing the games--they played them right up until the unanimous vote on the resolution last Wednesday.

For one thing, the council members had been given erroneous briefing documents on the racetrack--the first they'd ever received--the previous Friday. Although staff had received concrete figures from Smith on his infrastructure needs weeks earlier, Smith's dollar needs were left completely blank in the packet. "Costs have not yet been defined" the staff wrote.

For Meyer, the costs were given--even though Meyer had never provided any to the city. City staffers had worked hard to come up with their own set of figures for him. "Preliminary estimates provided by the city of Dallas public works department based on horse racing track," the staff wrote. What it did not write was that the figures were two-and-a-half years old (with some inflation tacked on) and pertained to a 300-acre horse track (as opposed to a 880-acre race track), thus resulting, of course, in insanely low figures on what Meyer's project would cost the city.

Crenshaw, the only councilmember besides Stimson who could see the dishonesty in the documents, cried foul over the weekend. At the Wednesday briefing, staff dutifully handed out new briefing packets--though they didn't alert council members to the change; in fact, they even slapped the same week-old cover letter from Assistant City Manager Ted Benavides on the top of it.

The new documents magically included the "undefined" Bruton Smith costs, which had been knocking around the city for weeks.

The new documents pointed out that Meyer's numbers were for a 300-acre horse track. Crenshaw also made sure during the briefing that her fellow council members understood the age of those numbers.

Still, Crenshaw is fighting an uphill battle, and she knows it. As she sat in that briefing, fighting the staff tooth and nail, she could see--as could every other council member--the very important person sitting just a few feet from her.

In the second row of the small spectator section, Hunt Oil vice president Jim Oberwetter sat quietly, as 800-pound gorillas do. Oberwetter--who told me this was only his third City Hall appearance in four years--didn't have to say a word, or throw a single fixed stare.

He didn't have to flash a fraternity sign to Bartlett--Oberwetter's old college roommate at the University of Texas, where a lifelong friendship was forged that helped convince Ray Hunt in 1991 to back Bartlett for mayor. He didn't have to wink at Councilwoman Donna Halstead, whose campaign treasurer is fellow Hunt employee Dan Petty, who, along with Oberwetter, spreads financial cheer to council campaigns on a regular basis.

"Listen, a lot of these people, like me, are facing re-election in May," one council member told me. "We're afraid to cross these people. I mean, this racetrack is not going to be built before the election--people aren't going to see the results by May--so there's too great a risk for a lot of us."

Sadly enough, Oberwetter didn't even have to think twice about Crenshaw, who, for all her good work trying to level this playing field, has never flat-out committed to backing Smith over Meyer. Oberwetter had smiled amusedly at me when I indicated that Crenshaw appeared to be backing the Smith site. "Are you sure about that?" he said, eyebrows arched. "That's not what I understand her position to be."

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